The Battle is in the Images: Egypt, “The Square,” and the Diegesis of Competing Media
The most gripping moment of Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” (opening Friday at Film Forum) comes not from the 2011 resignation of Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of rule, or from the Army’s ouster of Mohammed Morsi after only a few days of widespread protest this past summer. It comes, rather, in the middle of the film, during a brutal sequence of triage scenes interspersed amid sounds of gun fire and images of spattered blood. The camera looks down, omnisciently, upon a colorful spread of tent covers and blankets laid out on a street, repurposed as a makeshift trauma ward for the injured and wounded of Tahrir Square. Framing these images is the quivering voice of Ahmed Hassan, the baby-faced narrator of the film. “The square was tough. The square was not normal,” he says shaking and fearful, “It was a war. It was not a revolution.”
It is the subject of heated – and often mindlessly conclusory – debate in Egypt whether or not the removal of Mohammed Morsi from power in July constituted a “coup,” as a matter of either legal or political consequence. Comment threads from Facebook to YouTube to FP.com to The Guardian reflect a ready willingness on the part of many in Egypt to ascribe the worst possible motives to either side of this debate. Morsi’s opponents believe the Egyptian military acted solely in conformity with the will of the people, who believed (perhaps rightly) that he had lost the democratic legitimacy to govern. Morsi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood (and many who profess no brief for the Brotherhood at all) believed his legitimacy as the democratically-elected President of Egypt to be inviolate or, more mildly, not subject to military veto. Both sides agree, vociferously, that the other is doing the West’s bidding.
Neither Noujaim nor Producer Karim Amer concern themselves much with the semantics surrounding recent events in “The Square,” proceeding instead with a much bolder claim. “The coup starts,” Amer stated at a recent Q&A at the New York Film Festival, “when we stay silent and allow acts of injustice to happen.”
“The Square” is not a documentary history of the Egyptian Revolution itself, it is a history of the narrative of the Revolution, who is shaping that narrative, and how that narrative can be broken. Through a mixture of archival and on-the-scene footage, “The Square” portrays this narrative as one shaped largely by images, images that are frequently in contention with one another depending on who is disseminating them and who wishes them to remain obscured. And these images, in the immersive perspective of the filmmaker, come to us through three distinct channels: social media, mainstream media (MSM), and the documentary lens itself.
This interplay between competing media is already embedded in the collective memory of Tahrir at the outset of the film. Some of the anchor points of this collective memory are more familiar to Western audiences than others. There is the YouTube of Asmaa Mahfouz, who in early 2011 galvanized her countrymen by literally shaming them into action. “Come down with us, and demand your rights,” she exhorts, “my rights, your family’s rights, I am going down on January 25th, and I will say ‘No’ to corruption, ‘No’ to this regime!” Alongside this, the televised image of Hosni Mubarak, sonorous and defiant just days before his downfall, forewarns that, “the youth who are calling for change are the first to suffer the consequences.”
“The Square” is very much a study of the slackening off of received narratives, but it is also an exploration of the durability of counter-narratives in the face of relentless, heavy-handed retrenchment by the institutions of state power. The titular square is less a physical space at the center of a dense, chaotic city than a place (to borrow the words of social geographer Tim Creswell) “invested with meaning in the context of power” – a beloved community whose inhabitants, all recently arrived, have filled with a meaning quite different, and indeed more powerful, than any they could locate outside the square. “The Square” focuses on a handful of these inhabitants as they struggle to hold steady through turbulent periods of revolution, counter-revolution, re-revolution, and beyond. Ahmed, a tenacious and indefatigable revolutionary with a megawatt smile, dreams, “that one day all of Egypt will be like Tahrir.” Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter who has sustained repeated jailings and beatings at the hands of the Mubarak regime, muses that he could never have imagined, “one day standing on Tahrir in solidarity with all these people.” Actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner) seeks to continue a family tradition of activism that led to his father’s exile in Britain. “Here we have the discourse of democracy, of social justice, of political reform, being changed in the Middle East,” he attests.
These meanings are reinforced organically among the characters themselves, whose very relationships with one another represent, in their own way, a break from the received narrative of power outside the square. Muslim Brothers, Christians, Seculars, and Salafis all find a common purpose, and a common narrative, with one another on Tahrir. Other characters drift in and out of the story over time, among them: Aida El Kashef, a young filmmaker among the first to settle on Tahrir, Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer working in the trenches of hospital wards and coroners offices, General Bekheit, who justifies military aggression with airless civics lessons on public order, and Ramy Essam, a singer and activist who performs a catchy fusion of Arabic maqam, folk pop, and protest rock to adoring crowds on Tahrir. But it is Ahmed the street fighter, Magdy the Muslim Brother, and Khalid the media activist who provide the film its three main narrative poles. Tahrir is where their narratives overlap and even inform and sustain one another in the face of near endless siege from forces beyond. “The ‘State of Tahrir’,” as Khalid describes it, “has a housing department, it has its borders, it has its army, it has its ways of feeding itself.” He adds, “It doesn’t have a foreign ministry.” While “The Square” implicates a wide range of institutional actors across the spectrum of Egyptian politics and society, it also leaves little ambiguity over who posed the most consistent external threat to the State of Tahrir in the years following 2011.
The passage of time is broken up by interstitials of mural painting, reflecting both the explosion of street art in Egypt, as well as evolving perceptions of the role of institutional actors, in the wake of the Revolution. “The regime is not just Mubarak,” Ahmed warns early on, “it is all the country’s institutions. They need to change.” These institutions are manifold, whether it’s the police forces, the Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Information Ministry. Magdy, for his part, grows increasingly disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the absolute fealty demanded of its members to their Supreme Leader. “Nobody is going to stop me from following my conscience,” he proclaims, even as he struggles to peel himself off from the Brotherhood and its leadership. Khalid takes aim at the power of institutional media, forming with Aida the Mosireen Collective to train citizen journalists in the photo-documenting of police and military abuse. “The battle is not just rocks and stones,” he argues, “The battle is in the images, it’s in the stories.”
This shared narrative of resistance and hope is informed by a diegesis of competing media, with individual and social media on one side and the state-controlled mainstream media on the other. Police crackdowns are experienced at first aurally and then visually in violent cutaways. The camera lens becomes effectively weaponized, there as much to witness state violence as to ensure it becomes known. Military press conferences and screaming TV sheikhs present an almost perverse counterpoint to the story being told on the square, existing either to excuse injustice or to demonize those seeking to address it. These differences become sharpened the longer the Generals remain in power and come to a head with the mowing down of unarmed Coptic demonstrators in front of the Information Ministry in October 2011. Gruesome images of faces flattened by tank treads stand in lurid contrast to the glib apologetics offered by military talking heads. “Our biggest mistake is that we left the square before the power was in our hands,” Ahmed bemoans. “If you’ve got control of Tahrir, you’ve got power.” The confluence of institutional force and institutional media poses the single biggest obstacle to revolutionary change in the wake of 2011. Western broadcast media, conspicuously absent from Tahrir post-2011, drifts further and further from view as individual media takes over. As 2012 approaches, the Muslim Brotherhood seem less the perpetrators of bad events than the willing beneficiaries of them, politically clumsy and tone-deaf enablers of military power who happen to also be instinctually illiberal. One military attache gloats, “We didn’t protect the Revolution. We made it happen.” “The Square” leaves us at the very recent history of Tahrir, and its analogue across town at the Muslim Brotherhood-led protests in the wake of Morsi’s ouster. Magdy reluctantly follows orders and heads to Rabaa al Adawiya Square, later the scene of a violent bloodbath that led to the deaths of nearly a thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters. “We may or may not be massacred, it doesn’t matter,” he laments. The narrative has indeed been broken, albeit in seemingly too many directions to track.
The theme of broken narratives, particularly with respect to institutions of state power, is one Noujaim has visited before. 2004’s Control Room offered an unrivaled (and often covert) behind the scenes look at Al Jazeera during its coverage of the Iraq War. As much a critique of Western coverage of Iraq as an exploration of bias within Al Jazeera itself, Control Room offered a glimpse into a media environment where competing propagandas carried the day, increasingly divorced from the cycle of violence and instability taking place on the ground. Individual actors – whether correspondents for Al Jazeera or press officers for US CENTCOM – seemed only incidental to a broader battle over the meaning of the Iraq War, as either strategic imperative or moral catastrophe. History seems to have proffered its own judgment on Iraq in the nine years that have followed, but then again the media environment of 2004 is a very, very different one from 2013. In the age of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever other platform is coming down the pike, social and individual media are active streams of information keeping apace of, and frequently out-running, mainstream media for control of the public conscience. Journalism, for these purposes, becomes less the first draft of history as traditionally conceived, and more an institutional response to that history as it emerges, line by line, through channels of individual media. The Arab World, caught between competing paradigms of state power from within and without, is especially fertile ground for this dynamic, with social media becoming the first line of dissent before an official narrative of events can even emerge. As the narrative becomes more fractured, institutions of state power become more coercive in response. Mubarak endeavored to stand athwart this particular tide of history by shutting down the internet during the 2011 Revolution, serving only to hasten his own demise in the end.
For sure, there are limits (and even certain risks) to the advent of individual media as a response to state power. One of the earliest examples of Twitter as a tool for popular resistance, the 2009 “Green Revolution” in Iran, ended in a brutal crackdown by police and paramilitary groups. A YouTube of a doctored film trailer disparaging the life of Prophet Mohammed led to violent attacks on American diplomatic missions in 2012 (and an almost darkly comic contretemps of tweeted accusations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the US Embassy in Cairo). What “The Square” demonstrates is the potential for individual media, properly harnessed, to challenge established power structures across the globe, whatever their guise. “We don’t realize that what’s happening is part of a paradigm shift,” Kareem Amer notes, “What we want is the same as what people want in Athens . . . in Moscow, at Occupy Wall Street.” Asmaa Mahfouz herself was on-hand at Zuccotti Park in late 2011, holding a teach-in for Occupy protestors. “It’s a small Tahrir Square,” she remarked to DemocracyNow, “ . . . I would like to join any tent here.”
“The Square” will be making its Egyptian debut in November. One of the cruel ironies of the prevailing media environment in Egypt currently is that many there will no doubt view this documentary as anti-military, and therefore pro-Muslim Brotherhood (and more nonsensically, pro-Zionist and pro-Western), and therefore treasonous. Noujaim is personally unfazed by this. “I am very optimistic about Egypt even though now is a very dark time,” she says, “people are organizing, meeting, and growing.” Amer also notes that, “Once we look at what has happened as a founding period and not a transitional period, we’ll have a different set of analytics [to judge the Revolution].” These sentiments still prevail on the Tahrir of “The Square”, even after a decidedly Thermidorian summer for Egypt. Entering his third year of activism and resistance, Ahmed notes, “Revolution is not simply the removal of a regime. Revolution is the culture of a people.” “We introduced the culture of protest to the people,” he continues, “This is our life now. We’ll stay in the street.”