The Square (and the Circle)

Today I watched Jehane Moujaim’s political documentary ‘Al-Maidaan (The Square)’. The film is set in and around Cairo’s now-famous Tahrir Square. It follows the activism of three young Egyptian men: Ahmed (a secular revolutionary), Khalid (an actor-turned-revolutionary), and Magdy (a Muslim Brotherhood activist). The documentary covers the heady period beginning the fall of the longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak  in January 2011 to the coup that led to the fall of Morsi-headed Muslim Brotherhood government in summer 2013. Let me state in the beginning that the film presents Muslim Brotherhood in poor light, and allegations are made without much by way of substantiation. The narrative flow is smooth; too smooth in fact, given how the complex subject the film seeks to explore is reduced to motifs of ‘betrayal’ and ‘opportunism’. Yet, both betrayal and opportunism are objectively conceivable, and I am not in a position to contest this narrative, even though describing the momentous Egyptian revolution through such neat motifs should leave any commentator with a cringy feeling in the gut. Anyways, beyond the clear pro-liberal slant of the film-maker–which is obviously no sin–there are a few things that were striking and led me to recollect what happened to the revolution which many had hailed as a Spring.

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It is well-known that the fall of Mubarak was not the fall of the Falul–the vast network of figures and interests that had sustained the dictatorship for decades. Behind the misplaced optimism of the secular revolutionaries, the too-confident sense of historic opportunity of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the presumptuous credit global media, especially new social media like Facebook and Twitter, gave itself by suggesting that it had midwifed the revolution, Falul were active in setting the contours of the game, if not micro-engineering each misstep the secular revolutionaries and the MB took.

The missteps for secular liberals were the lack of organization, severe mistrust of MB (which has continued), and not extending their ideals beyond Cairo–all of which eventually led them to watch from the sidelines, if not fully support, as the Falul machine-gunned the MB followers. For MB the missteps included underestimating the raw power of new media-savvy secular youth, not considering the very material aspirations of the Egyptian society beyond the emotional rhetoric of religion,  and a quick jump into factional politics. Their about-turns–about contesting elections and framing a progressive constitution–pitted them against the secular youth revolutionaries. This led MB to support the military against the leftists and liberal secularists. The failure of imagination became most remarkable when MB sought to usurp power via the overbearing authority of Morsi–the kind of power that people had grown to hate, the power which the people had just dethroned. People had fought for a better Egypt, an Egypt that cares about its citizens, not for installing a new leader. This is what the film is saying. I believe a lot of this is correct, but what is the MB side of the story?

The film, shot from the point of view of the secular youth, in which MB gets a small voice in the form of Magdy’s shaky defence of the organization, suggests that MB betrayed the revolution. For Magdy, who is committed to MB but is skeptical of its tactical moves, MB’s older leaders played traditional style politics: trying to take over the state without any real or progressive agenda for social transformation, which had in the first place driven millions of Egyptians to seek socio-political change. But for him, the secular revolutionaries were too impatient as well; they shouldn’t blame MB for winning the election. MB should have been given more time.

The film is clear about MB’s collusion with the Army–just before and after the party won the elections–to wipe out secular revolutionaries from the Tahrir, where many leftist youth had pitched tents to demand an end to the emergency laws that had remained in place even after Mubarak’s fall. The film, however, remains tellingly vague about the eventual secular-liberal Tamarud movement and its collusion with the Army to destroy the MB. Perhaps, the quandary one faces is how to tell a story about an event and a society where there are no neutral vantage points? Where all politics is too sharply carved up between partisans of one side or the other? How is the history of the Tahrir movement going to be written?

To me–the Kashmiri me, the distant me–both secular revolutionaries (which is mostly youth who originally started the protests in Tahrir against Mubarak) and the MB (mostly the leaders who make decisions in this top-heavy party) made strikingly stupid blunders. They trusted the army against each other. If Tamarud was a counterrevolution in the garb of revolution, who appointed General Al-Sisi in the first place? Populist politicians have a tendency to appoint military generals who become the former’s nemesis eventually; Bhutto and Zia ul-haq; Nawaz Sharif and Musharaf are just two examples of a saga where Morsi’s and Al-Sisi’s names must be added. It remains to be analyzed if these groups, MB and secular revolutionaries were bound to make blunders because of their political projects and their understanding of politics, or were the blunders just errors of judgment.

At this stage, it is hard to have sympathy with either the secular revolutionaries or the MB, or cheer for the gargantuan effort it took them to cannibalize their own revolution. Now that the Falul are in power (they were really never out of it), having vanquished the MB and neutralized the secular revolutionaries, Egypt has circled back to ‘normal’. I wonder what those who spent all those months in Tahrir have to say now. What is left of hope? Each defeat sets the clock back back to square one. Each such setback can paralyze an entire generation. While one can’t deny the immense importance of the revolution which took place, yet it is time to recognize the defeat and work together. Will Ahmed and Magdy keep the previous missteps in mind as they embark afresh? 

Egypt is a lesson for Kashmir, where a similar arrangement of power exists, where similar sets of forces, ideologies, and interests seek to overpower each other. The Kashmiri falul, who rule based on the power of hired guns from India, have deep interest in keeping pro-freedom forces divided along ideological differences–ideologies which are more rhetorical than substantive. Like Egypt, any political transformation would require a recognition of the plurality of political forces, plurality of leadership, plurality of visions–except the ones that keep Kashmir tied down under foreign rule. The consensus that must be arrived at, and which can be the basis of a united struggle, should only be the one which is based on thinking and practice that can allow such plurality to co-exist. 

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