The Betrayal of Tahrir Square

An Oscar-nominated film about the Egyptian revolution is banned in Egypt. That says a lot.
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A protester holds an Egyptian flag while standing on a light pole at Cairo's Tahrir Square in Cairo in July 2011. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

You can learn a lot about a regime by what it prevents its people from seeing and hearing. A case in point: The Square, an Oscar nominee for the year’s best documentary feature, is banned in Egypt—the very country whose revolutionary upheaval the film chronicles.

The Square tells the story of the youthful Tahrir Square protesters who precipitated the fall of longtime Egyptian military dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They organized, coordinated, and communicated with each other and the world via Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, and YouTube. But the courage and idealism with which they took control of this central physical space in downtown Cairo is the film’s most important theme.

The Democracy Report

Their goal was both timely and timeless: protection of their basic human rights by a government they could hold accountable. That was the simple, unifying theme of the Arab Spring three years ago. It is what catalyzed the heroism and hopes of the young protagonists in The Square. It is what demonstrators in Tunis, Benghazi, Tripoli, Damascus, Sana’a, and Manama risked their lives to achieve.  It is what protesters in Kiev and Caracas have more recently risen up for, and died for.

In fact, at least some of the democracy protesters in Kiev’s Maidan have seen The Square—demonstrators gathered in their square, in freezing temperatures, to watch a dubbed version of the film—and they have communicated their support for the Egyptian struggle via social-media messages to the filmmakers. News, ideas, and visuals travel far and fast in the digital age.

The Square is not merely a film about Egypt and the current moment. It speaks to a universal human aspiration that has helped drive transitions to democracy in more than 60 countries in the last four decades. Yet, in countries like Ukraine and Venezuela, many of these democratic hopes were dashed by the corruption, arrogance, lawlessness, and sheer incompetence of the rulers that revolutions and elections thrust forth. 

That, too, has been a component of the freeze that has followed the Arab Spring. Twice in less than two years, budding autocracies—first of Egypt’s elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, then of the Egyptian generals—have betrayed the democratic hopes and ideals that animated Tahrir Square, along with the young protesters who helped bring these political forces to power.

Since the military coup last July, Egypt’s government has arrested thousands of people on political charges, and more than 1,000 have been killed in political violence. Under the de-facto rule of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the repression has intensified. Just last week, Human Rights Watch reported, “Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators, and academics for peacefully expressing their views.”

The crackdown is increasingly broad and bold. Even journalists are now being prosecuted on grave charges, such as belonging to a “terrorist organization,” that carry prison sentences of up to 15 years. In January, the regime brought charges of “insulting the judiciary” against 25 people, including the liberal academic and former lawmaker Amr Hamzawy. Hamzawy’s alleged “crime” was a tweet he issued criticizing the conviction of several U.S.-based democracy-assistance groups on the absurd charge of plotting to “undermine Egypt’s national security” in the service of an American-Israeli “sectarian” agenda.  By stirring xenophobic nationalism in this way, the regime hopes to consolidate its grip on power.

Thus far, the Censorship Bureau of Egypt’s military-dominated government has not approved The Square for viewing by the Egyptian public. Their only means of seeing it is through illegal, pirated downloads of compromised quality on the Internet. (Here in America, you can find the film on Netflix.)

It’s doubtful that Egypt’s repressive regime will heed the film’s message about average Egyptians and their yearning for freedom, dignity, and a “government with a conscience.” But an Oscar win would certainly put international pressure on the government to show the documentary in Egypt.

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Presented by

Larry Diamond and Jeff Shank

Larry Diamond directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. Jeff Shank is a filmmaker.

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