The Diplomat Documentary Review Essays
by Jehane Noujaim,
Participant Media, 2013
January 25th 2011: when something beautiful happened
In a lengthy interview with journalist Albert Reif about her study On Violence, during the summer of 1970, the political theorist Hannah Arendt remarks: “The good things in history are usually of very short duration, but afterward have a decisive influence on what happens over long periods of time.”
In 2011, we saw something good happening in Egypt, when millions of people took to the streets, claiming the public space and demanding dignity, freedom and social justice.
It is true. The beauty of the Egyptian revolution, like that of all beautiful things, was short-lived, and soon the cruel face of political strife was revealed. In times of normalization of the “state of exception”, the political contest, which is part of the democratic dialectic, is substituted by the arbitrariness of the law and its application. The public space shifts from being a political arena to a securitized space: from agora to Green Zone.
Yet, there is no doubt that this revolution, disliked and undermined by the old patriarchs in uniform and their international partners in business suits, has already inexorably influenced the course of history.
The global history of revolutionary processes suggests that the generation that lived through this moment of public happiness is meant to renew the way of thinking about politics and public space. The challenge is to make this generation and their ways of thinking survive the counter-revolution. Art is what keeps people, their ideas and the memory of their actions alive in times of severe political repression. Jehan Noujaim’s The Square, released for the first time in October 2013, and immediately acclaimed as an iconic documentary, is part of this collective effort of archiving to keep the revolution alive.
The Autobiography of a Generation
“Let me tell you how the whole story began….”
These words are Ahmed Hassan’s, a young man who took part in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and are the incipit of The Square. Jehan Noujaim entrusts to Ahmed the task of narrating history through the plural stories of politics, friendship and coming of age that Egyptian revolutionaries experienced between January 2011 and August 2013. This choice discloses the Egyptian-American filmmaker’s poetics from the first minute: the revolutionaries should be put in the position of telling their own story. Taking into account their subjectivities, political history takes on a new dimension. In so doing, The Square is central to the collective cultural project of countering hegemonic and state-centred narratives about the Egyptian 2011 revolution. Building on the ground-breaking work of the historian Luisa Passerini on the relationship between memory, subjectivity and history, I describe and analyse this project as the “Autobiography of a Generation”.
The story does not begin in January 2011. Ahmed commences his chronicle by framing the 2011 revolution against the background of Egyptian political and economic situation in the age of Mubarak: “Egypt was living without dignity, injustice existed everywhere…”.
In the years where international organizations were praising the regime for policies of privatization and reduction of the already inefficient welfare, clear signs of the collapse of society were already evident to Egyptian critical scholars and artists. In the early 2000s, Egyptian academics and human rights activists denounced the state of corruption and violence, calling the Egyptian government to address the social, economic and political crisis. But their calls remained unheard. Many of them paid for their criticism against the regime and their commitment to human rights with jail and exile. Islamists were also condemned by military and civil trials in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The police’s violence and, more broadly, that of the security apparatus under the Mubarak regime were also addressed in literature and in cinema, notwithstanding the censorship. For instance, Youssef Chahine and Khaled Youssef denounced it explicitly in Heyya Fawda (Chaos, 2007), where they paid homage to the democratic movements of that time (Kifaya and the Judges movement). Significantly, the last scene in the fiction was a popular assault on a jail to liberate political activists and poor people. At that time, one could think that the scene was a metaphor, inspired by the Conquest of the Bastille, which started the French Revolution. Today, the same scene looks like the wise premonition of the 2011 spontaneous uprising.
Notwithstanding this gloomy picture, on the eve of the 2011 Revolution, the international community considered Egypt a stable country and one of the most reliable allies of the West in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
Ahmed’s testimony in The Square tells another story, a story of widespread popular discontent, which was due not only to economic problems but also to state violence, corruption and unaccountability. On the eve of the revolution, the emergency law had been enforced for 30 years, and the brutal murder of Khaled Said by the police added to people’s rage against the security apparatus.
Ahmed does not hide his surprise on the 25th of January: “I went down to the street. I found that everyone was there. People broke their fears”.
The topic of fear and overcoming fear runs through the whole documentary, and it intersects with the theme of the trans-generational transmission of knowledge and activism. When a British Television program asks the actor Khaled Abdallah if he does not fear arrest in the days of the January uprising, his answer opens a new perspective:
Actually, I don’t care. I know why I am here. I come from three generations who have been fighting for reforms and for political freedom in this country.
These words resonate with the experience of many activists, artists and intellectuals who took on the battle over narratives on the Egyptian revolution. Over time, these narratives turned into “a narrative of despair.” Yet, just as naming the loss is an act of signifying that allows the projection of the self into the future, naming despair is not an act of resignation. In the new grammar of dissidence that has been written by the Egyptian revolutionaries, narrating despair turns into resistance against violence. Noujaim eloquently represents people’s demands for democracy, freedom, social justice and political reform in January 2011. What characterizes her illustration of the glorious 18 days is the elegant blend of the language of politics with that of emotions, shedding light on the sentiments of inclusiveness and love that the revolution inspired among Egyptian people: “We found ourselves loving each other without realizing it. There were no Christians or Muslims,” declares Aida El Kashef, young filmmaker and co-founder of Mosireen, a major collective for civic journalism that was created during the revolution.
As it is stated in the title of the documentary, Noujaim’s narrative focuses on Tahrir Square. It is however clear that the young people involved in the revolution were thinking beyond this small and iconic space in downtown Cairo. Remembering February 11, 2011 Ahmed says: “We dreamed that one day all Egypt would have been like Tahrir Square”. The dream crossed the borders of Egypt, and involved the Egyptian diasporas around the world, especially exiled activists, to whom Noujaim also gives voice. In a short interview, Hussam Abdallah, Khaled’s father, is almost in tears when he declares: “We all worked for this, years, in exile and in Egypt”.
In the documentary, moments of enthusiasm often give way to disillusion. In the spring of 2011 Egypt remained under emergency law, with the apparatus of the Mubarak’s regime still in power. On the 9th of March the sit-in in Tahrir Square was brutally attacked, and 173 men and 17 women were arrested and taken to the Egyptian Museum and other locations, where severe torture and the so called “virginity tests” were imposed on them. Noujaim assigns the testimony of this violent assault to one of the icons of the Egyptian Revolution, the singer Rami Essam. In the scenes of February, the young artist was joyously singing the collective happiness of the Egyptian people. In March, the same man is bed-ridden, narrating the violence and the humiliation his sore body underwent. The contradiction between the two scenes adds strength to his witness accounts of the security apparatus’ brutality.
In The Square, state-run media are criticised for the way they covered the 9th of March clashes, and a need for independent media outlets is clearly expressed by the film protagonists. Ahmed says: “The battle is not just the rocks and the stones. The battle is in the images, the battle is in the stories”. The film documents the birth of popular media, in particular that of the collective Mosireen. The significance of this alternative narrative is immediately clear: “We must film everything and show them the truth. As long as there is a camera, the revolution will continue”.
In the summer of 2011, six months after the start of the revolution, thousands were arrested and put under military trials, and protestors took back to the square to demand the end of military rule. But something changed since the early days. This time, the Square was not united anymore. The Muslim Brotherhood was using it to negotiate with the army. Also the revolutionary scene appeared now divided. On one side, there were those who, for fear of ending under military rule, wanted immediate elections. On the other, those who believed times were not mature yet, because the democratic political forces were not ready. Noujaim seems to suggesting that this disagreement reflected a generational gap, featuring a conversation between the journalist Mona Anis (pro elections) and Khaled Abdallah (against the elections). It became later evident that the army and the Brotherhood were two sides of the same coin: the counter-revolution. The first victims were the Copts in October 2011. Dedicating a nuanced and significant section of her documentary to the Maspero massacre, Noujaim describes it as a key chapter in the history of State violence and the unaccountability of its perpetrators.
On the Maspero corniche, on the 9th of October 2011, the army did not hesitate to run over defenceless people with their tanks. Noujaim includes in the documentary scenes from the massacre, the desperate tears of Mina Daniel’s parents at his funeral, and human rights lawyer Ragia Omran’s indignation, when the hospital refuses to perform autopsies on the victims. Watching The Square in April 2017, when the Egyptian president claims that the State wants to protect the Copts, and declares a three-month State of Emergency as a consequence of the Palm Sunday attacks, a number of questions come to mind. Isn’t this the same leadership that, back then, ordered the massacre? Why, if “protecting the Coptic community” is a priority, has nobody been held accountable for the Maspero massacre? Maintaining and transmitting the memory of Maspero is more necessary today than ever, and Noujaim’s documentary adds to building an archive of images and words that contribute to historical justice in a context where juridical justice is not achievable yet.
Tension kept escalating until November 2011, when the battle exploded in Muhammad Mahmoud street: “This was war, not revolution,” declares Ahmed. Here, Noujaim denounces the opportunism of the Muslim Brotherhood, and praises the civil forms of resistance, from the setting-up of field hospitals to the work of independent media, including the experience of Cinema Tahrir. The aim of building a revolutionary counter-narrative of the revolution continues to be a central part in The Square, where it is clear that the point of view that is endorsed is that of the revolutionaries.
The protagonists of The Square express scepticism toward the electoral process, both in the November 2011-January 2012 Parliamentary elections, and in the May 2012 Presidential elections: “We are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” states Ahmed. The political scene was by then very difficult, and the weaknesses of democratic and secular activists in the square were mirrored by the week position of secular and democratic politicians in the Parliament.
The political legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood was under question, and their crisis of legitimacy overlapped SCAF’s (The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) numerous efforts to defeat the democratic forces. In June 2012, the Constitutional Court ordered the dissolving of the lower house of parliament. By the winter of 2012 the cleavages between the revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, by then the governing power, became open hostility. The Muslim Brotherhood did not hesitate to mobilize their supporters to attack revolutionary protestors. Although legitimised by an electoral process, the Brotherhood lost popular consensus due to their incapacity to address substantial social and economic issues, their unwillingness to truly embrace democratic values, and their manipulation of sectarian and class tensions to create division. The second anniversary of the 2011 revolution was marked by popular demonstrations, which continued till the end of the year. In early June 2013, even the artists mobilized against the government, declaring a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture to demand the removal of the newly appointed minister, Alaa Abdel Aziz:
The intellectuals, writers and artists inside the ministry announce their rejection of the minister, appointed by the religious fascist regime, who has embarked on his plan to destroy national culture.
Then, history underwent a dramatic acceleration, marked by the end of the alliance between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, which eventually led to the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, 2013. The documentary covers all these phases and shows that the population initially welcomed Morsi’s overthrowing. At that time, very few critical intellectuals openly expressed their concerns about the direct involvement of the army, and their voices are not included in Noujaim’s narrative. More broadly, an intellectual history of the Egyptian revolution is yet to be written and Noujaim’s project is of another nature. The filmmaker focuses on the activists, and in the last scenes of the documentary her film shows the gap between electoral legitimacy and popular consensus in the days leading up to the 30th of June 2013 demonstrations.
Back then, the kaleidoscopic galaxy of politically conscious Egyptians, made of new social movements, old political activists and ordinary citizens, was well aware that the space for political action was shrinking. However, they continued to practice the Gramscian “optimism of the will” and to nourish hope for the fulfilment of the 2011 revolutions demands: Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice. People were failed by the regime, but they created a new way of thinking about politics. In Ahmed’s words at the end of the documentary: they were “looking for creating a conscience among the people”.
The Square and the battle over memory
The 2011 Egyptian revolution captured the cultural and political imagination of a generation. Intellectuals and activists who grew up studying post-colonial theories, who had Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2009) on their bedside table, and participated in the World Social Forums (since 2001) were inspired by the 18 Egyptian days. International social movements that flourished around the world in 2011 and 2012, from Occupy Wall Street, to Podemos, Siriza, Taksim Square and even the Jasmin Revolution in China were all stirred by the wind of hope blown from Egypt in January 2011.
Jehane Noujaim belongs to this generation, and her narrative of the 2011 Egyptian revolution shows the collective political aspirations for social justice of the Egyptian revolutionaries and their international counterparts. It is not surprising that the documentary was welcomed by overwhelming applause at its first release in January 2013.
The Square has the merit of giving names and faces to what are generally conceived as abstract categories, such as secular, leftists and Islamists. For instance, the experience of Magdy Ashour deconstructs simplistic readings of Islamists’ political activism, showing the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, which betrays the revolution, and the revolutionaries who are affiliated to the organization, but who share with the seculars the dream of social justice. The documentary follows the trajectory of its protagonists, the relationship between politics and friendship that they developed during the revolution and beyond political affiliation, bringing into the picture also the voices of prominent activists who campaigned for democracy under the Mubarak regime (Bothaina Kamel), intellectuals (Mona Anis), and human rights lawyers (Ragia Omran). The voices of secular and democratic activists are mostly unknown to the Western audience. Those voices, especially women’s, are commonly neglected in the Western narratives of Egyptian politics, unless they explicitly focus on gender related issues. Western media are not interested in Egyptian women who do not conform to the Orientalist stereotypes of “subjugation”. Bringing to the silver screen the voices and faces of these three high profile women intellectual and activists, Noujaim successfully bridges a gap in the international discussion about gender and women. Although the documentary does not explicitly engage with women’s protagonism in the 2011 revolution, the presence of these three characters suggests the relevance of women’s political activism, a theme which deserves further development, both in political science scholarship (which outside the feminist studies field tends to be gender blind) and in the broader cultural sphere.
A lot has been written on the events that led from the popular uprising to the military coup. Less attention has been devoted to the ways Egyptian activists experienced this troubled process, something that can best be analysed through studying politics from a bottom-up and humanistic perspective. Cultural productions, not only documentaries, but also feature films, theatre plays, visual art, novels, and essays are essential sources for scholars who approach politics as an integral part of life of every human being. The Square is a gemstone in this wide corpus of sources, and the history of its success should be contextualized in the historical moment of its release. At a moment when the new regime was trying to define the coup as a new phase in the revolution, The Square played the fundamental function of remembering to the international audience what the 2011 revolution was, translating the ideas, the hopes and the projects of its protagonists. Thanks to its timely release, to the high quality of the production, and its heartfelt approach to the history of the 18 days that changed the perception of politics of an entire generation, The Square was labelled as “the documentary” on the 2001 Egyptian Revolution, immediately capturing the attention of a broad international audience.
One year later, its revised version, which included shooting of scenes from the 30th of June’s oceanic demonstrations, the dramatic aftermath of the military coup and the dispersal of the Morsi supporters’ sit in, was nominated for the Oscar.
Three years after The Square’s first release, the political situation in Egypt is tragic. The most serious crisis of human rights is underway, and is met with the cynical indifference of Western governments and their diplomats. The State can’t face the economic challenges, especially youth unemployment and social inequality. Security against terrorist attacks is claimed as a priority and the main reason for policing people, but, in fact, security remains a mirage. Even among the Coptic clergy, who are traditionally complaisant with the regime, some voices have started to be critical.
Watching and screening The Square in 2017, in the days when Mubarak is acquitted of complicity in the killings of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising, is a political act of resistance. In a country where the judiciary claims that “nothing happened”, a documentary like The Square is there to remind us that, indeed, something important happened. If on one side the “voice of the law” is there to support the political power in its effort to wipe out the memory of the revolution from history, on the other, film directors, writers and, more broadly, artists, offer a compelling counter-narrative that pays justice to the victims of state violence and, far from being instrumental and consolatory, is empowering and subversive.
“The holes of oblivion do not exist” writes Arendt in the last pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem
Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be ‘practically useless’, at least, not in the long run.
The Square needs to be read as part of a broader corpus of works by Arab film directors who critically engage with politics and history, and claim the right to narrate history from the margins of the political power, shedding light on micro-histories and individual experiences.
For this reason, not only arts and cinema studies scholars, but also social scientists show growing interest in films and, more broadly cultural productions as a site of performance for the new civic activism.
In times of severe repression of all forms of political activism, the arts play the crucial role of keeping memory alive, empowering people and inspiring subversion. For all these reasons, we can certainly affirm that, yes, six years on, it is still worth it to see The Square, and to remember that, yes, something happened.
It is indeed true: “The good things in history are usually of very short duration…..”.
Abd El Fattah, Alaa. “Living with the martyrs”, Mada Masr, 10 October 2014 (First published in al-Shourouk, 20 October 2011). http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/politics/living-martyrs
Abdelfattah, Alaa. “Jan 25, 5 years on: The only words I can write are about losing my words”, Mada Masr, January 24, 2015 http://www.madamasr.com/en/contributor/alaa-abd-el-fattah/
Agamben, Giorgio. Stato d’Eccezione, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003.
Ali, Amro. “Alexandria’s church bombing and the deepening of melancholia”, Mada Masr, April 12 2017 http://www.madamasr.com/en/2017/04/12/opinion/u/alexandrias-church-bombing-and-the-deepening-of-melancholia/
Ali, Amro. “Seeds of Revolution. De-mythologizing Khaled Said”, Jadaliyya, 5 June 2012. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/5845/saeeds-of-revolution_de-mythologizing-khaled-saeed
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the Banality of Evil, New York: Penguin Books, 2006. First edition, 1963: 232-233
Atallah, Hani. “Remembering those who were slain”, Mada Masr, 9 October 2014, http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/politics/remembering-those-who-were-slain
Attallah, Samer. “Seeking Wealth, Taking Power”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. November 18 2014. http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/57252
Badran, Margot. “Dis/playing power and the politics of patriarchy in revolutionary Egypt: the creative activism of Huda Lutfi”, Postcolonial Studies 17, n.1 (2014): 47-62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2014.912188
Carr, Sara. “Why is Maspero Different?”, Mada Masr, 10 October 2013. http://www.madamasr.com/sections/politics/why-maspero-different
El-Mahdi Rabab and Marphlet Philippe (eds.), Egypt. The Moment of Change, London: Zed Book, 2009.
Eskandar, Wael. “Remembering the Maspero Massacre. Notes from the Underground”, Mada Masr, 9 October 2012 http://blog.notesfromtheunderground.net/2012/10/remembering-maspero-massacre.html
Farid Farid, “Egypt bombing: Stuck between Islamic State and Sisi, Coptics cling to their faith”, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 11 2017 http://www.smh.com.au/world/egypt-bombing-stuck-between-islamic-state-and-sisi-coptics-cling-to-their-faith-20170410-gvhq28.html
Gaber, Sherief. “Maspero and Memory”, Mada Masr, 9 October 2013. http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/maspero-and-memory
Halawa, Hafsa. “Egypt and the Middle East: Adapting to Tragedy”, in Richard Youngs (ed.), Global Civic Activism in Flux, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 17 <arch 2017. http://carnegieeurope.eu/2017/03/17/global-civic-activism-in-flux-pub-68301#top-content
Hamzawy, Amr. “The General Knows Best: Ridiculing Civilian Politics in Egypt”, Jadaliyya, 28 May 2016. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/24150/the-general-knows-best_ridiculing-civilian-politic
Hamzawy, Amr. “النجاة بمصر – ملاحظات تأسيسية ” (Saving Egypt. Core Principles), Jadaliyya, 18 June 2015. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/21923/النجاة-بمصر_-ملاحظات-تأسيسية
Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: End Torture, Military Trials of Civilians Demonstrators and Journalists Arrested, Abused as Army Clears Tahrir Square”, 11 March 2011. https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/03/11/egypt-end-torture-military-trials-civilians
Ismail, Amina. “Bishop says state of emergency not enough to protect Egypt’s Copts”, reuters.com. April, 13 2017.
Kandil, Hazim. The Power Triangle: Military, Security, and Politics in Regime Change, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Kirpatrick, David. “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent” The New York Times, 15 July 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/world/middleeast/egypt-morsi.html?pagewanted=all
Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy, Egypt’s Secular Political Parties. A Struggle for Identity and Independence, Carnergie Endowment for International Peace, 2017
Mohammed Saad and Elkamel Sara. “Artists break into Egypt’s culture ministry building, declare sit-in”, Al-Ahram Online, 5 June 2013. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/5/35/73249/Arts–Culture/Stage–Street/-Artists-break-into-Egypts-culture-ministry-buildi.aspx
Morayef, Heba. “Reexamining Human Rights Change in Egypt”, MERIP Report, 45 (2015) http://www.merip.org/mer/mer274/reexamining-human-rights-change-egypt
Passerini, Luisa. Autobiography of a Generation: Italy 1968, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996. First edition, Autoritratto di gruppo, Firenze: Giunti, 1988.
Reif, Albert. “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution (Interview)”, The New York Review of Books, 22 April 1971: 8-20. Reprinted in Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Sherief Elkatsha, Leila Menjou, Shayfeen. We are Watching you, BBC Storyville, 2007.
Sorbera, Lucia. “Writing Revolution. New Inspirations, new Questions”, Postcolonial Studies, 17 n. 1 (2014): 63-75 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2014.912193
Soueif, Ahdaf. “ ما الذى فوض الناس عليه الفريق السيسى؟” (What have the people authorised Field-Marshall Sisi to do?), al-Shuruk, 31 July 2013. http://www.shorouknews.com/columns/view.aspx?cdate=31072013&id=f9616962-6bd9-4de8-b66a-1deaf8a76808
Soueif, Ahdaf. “We Thought Democracy Was Enough. It was not”, The Guardian, 2, July 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/01/egypt-thought-democracy-enough-morsi
Toma, Sally. “My survivor’s guilt: Coping with the trauma of loss”, Mada Masr, 22 July 2015 http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/politics/my-survivors-guilt-coping-trauma-loss
 Albert Reif, “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution (Interview)”, The New York Review of Books, 22 April 1971: 8-20. Reprinted in Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic (N.Y, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972)
 Giorgio Agamben, Stato d’Eccezione (Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 2003)
 The historian Margot Badran has elaborated the concept of uniformed patriarchy in the context of the Egyptian revolution. Margot Badran, “Dis/playing power and the politics of patriarchy in revolutionary Egypt: the creative activism of Huda Lutfi”, Postcolonial Studies 17, n.1 (2014): 47-62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2014.912188
 Luisa Passerini, Autobiography of a Generation: Italy 1968 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996. First edition, Firenze, 1988)).
 Rabab el Mahdi and Philippe Marphlet (eds.), Egypt. The Moment of Change (London: Zed Book, 2009).
 The human rights activist and scholar, Heba Morayef, dates the birth of the Egyptian human rights community in 1985, when the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights was established. At that time, the community was composed by about 19 organizations which were members of the informal Forum of Independent Egyptian Human Rights NGOs. Morayef documents the trajectory of the community under the Mubarak regime, when its members were constantly threatened, during the Egyptian revolution, were they had more operational space and visibility, to the present day, when human rights activists are the main target of travel bans, freezing of assets, and military trials. Heba Morayef, “Reexamining Human Rights Change in Egypt”, MERIP Report, 45 (2015) http://www.merip.org/mer/mer274/reexamining-human-rights-change-egypt
 The pioneer of the Egyptian human rights movement, Ahmed Seif, served five years of jail from 1983; the human rights activist Hafez Abou Saada was condemned in 1998; the sociologist Saadeddine Ibrahim in 2000, the politician Ayman Nour in 2005
Amro Ali, “Seeds of Revolution. De-mythologizing Khaled Said”, Jadaliyya, 5 June 2012. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/5845/saeeds-of-revolution_de-mythologizing-khaled-saeed
 Alaa Abdelfattah, “Jan 25, 5 years on: The only words I can write are about losing my words”, Mada Masr, January 24, 2015 http://www.madamasr.com/en/contributor/alaa-abd-el-fattah/
 Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: End Torture, Military Trials of Civilians
Demonstrators and Journalists Arrested, Abused as Army Clears Tahrir Square”, 11 March 2011. https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/03/11/egypt-end-torture-military-trials-civilians
 In a detailed analysis of Egypt’s secular political parties, Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy underline the historical role of the State in creating the condition for the electoral success of the Islamist coalitions against the seculars: “Caught in the crossfire between a state dominated by the military/security apparatus and an opposition dominated by Islamists, secular parties have struggled to define coherent identities as well as to build bases of support and funding”. Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy, Egypt’s Secular Political Parties. A Struggle for Identity and Independence, Carnergie Endowment for International Peace, 2017: 11. The authors also acknowledge that the 2011-2013 period represented an unprecedented opening of the political space and that secular parties had compromised themselves since the Sadat era: “Egypt’s secular parties were often criticized as being elitist, internally undemocratic, financially corrupt, and unwilling to do the hard work of building real constituencies outside the country’s major cities. Once politics opened up after 2011, secular parties also took actions that undermined their credibility and the democratic opening they claimed to prize” ibid. p. 19
 Alaa Abd El Fattah, “Living with the martyrs”, Mada Masr, 10 October 2014 (First published in al-Shourouk, 20 October 2011). Available from: http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/politics/living-martyrs: Hani Atallah, “Remembering those who were slain”, Mada Masr, 9 October 2014, http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/politics/remembering-those-who-were-slain; Sarah Carr, “Why is Maspero Different?”, Mada Masr, 10 October 2013. http://www.madamasr.com/sections/politics/why-maspero-different; Wael Eskandar, “Remembering the Maspero Massacre. Notes from the Underground”, Mada Masr, 9 October 2012, http://blog.notesfromtheunderground.net/2012/10/remembering-maspero-massacre.html; Sherief Gaber, “Maspero and Memory”, Mada Masr, 9 October 2013. http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/maspero-and-memory; Sally Toma, “My survivor’s guilt: Coping with the trauma of loss”, Mada Masr, 22 July 2015 http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/politics/my-survivors-guilt-coping-trauma-loss; Amro Ali, “Alexandria’s church bombing and the deepening of melancholia”, Mada Masr, April 12 2017 http://www.madamasr.com/en/2017/04/12/opinion/u/alexandrias-church-bombing-and-the-deepening-of-melancholia/; Farid Farid, “Egypt bombing: Stuck between Islamic State and Sisi, Coptics cling to their faith”, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 11 2017 http://www.smh.com.au/world/egypt-bombing-stuck-between-islamic-state-and-sisi-coptics-cling-to-their-faith-20170410-gvhq28.html
 Hazim Kandil, The Power Triangle: Military, Security, and Politics in Regime Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 Saad Mohammed and Sara Elkamel. “Artists break into Egypt’s culture ministry building, declare sit-in”, Al-Ahram Online, 5 June 2013 http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/5/35/73249/Arts–Culture/Stage–Street/-Artists-break-into-Egypts-culture-ministry-buildi.aspx
 At that time, the writer Ahdaf Soueif, who has always been on the side of the young revolutionaries, had a weekly column on al-Shourouk and, in the spring of 2013, she wrote a number of articles where she denounced violence, sectarianism and the lack of accountability of the security apparatus. On the 30th of June 2013, from her weekly column, she questioned the legitimacy of the military rule: Soueif, Ahdaf. “ ما الذى فوض الناس عليه الفريق السيسى؟” (What have the people authorized Field-Marshall Sisi to do?), al-Shuruk, 31 July 2013. http://www.shorouknews.com/columns/view.aspx?cdate=31072013&id=f9616962-6bd9-4de8-b66a-1deaf8a76808. Ahdaf Soueif wrote also in English about the danger of being coopted by the remnants of the NDP and the security establishment: Ahdaf Soueif, “We Thought Democracy Was Enough. It was not”, The Guardian 2, July 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/01/egypt-thought-democracy-enough-morsi. Political scientist Rabab al-Mahdi declared to the New York Times: “We are moving from the bearded chauvinistic right to the clean-shaven chauvinistic right,” David Kirpatrick. “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent” The New York Times, 15 July 2013. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/world/middleeast/egypt-morsi.html?pagewanted=all). The political scientist and former MP Amr Hamzawy was the most vocal and the first one to write about the military coup in an editorial on Shourouk. It is telling that the editorial is no longer available from the Shourouk’s online archives. Other interventions by Hamzawy about the 2013 coup: Hamzawy, Amr. “The General Knows Best: Ridiculing Civilian Politics in Egypt”, Jadaliyya, 28 May 2016. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/24150/the-general-knows-best_ridiculing-civilian-politic; Hamzawy, Amr. “النجاة بمصر – ملاحظات تأسيسية “ (Saving Egypt. Core Principles), Jadaliyya, 18 June 2015. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/21923/النجاة-بمصر_-ملاحظات-تأسيسية http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/21923/النجاة-بمصر_-ملاحظات-تأسيسية
 Lucia Sorbera, “Writing Revolution. New Inspirations, new Questions” Postcolonial Studies, 17 n. 1 (2014): 63-75 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2014.912193
 Bothaina Kamel was among the promoters of the campaign Shayfinkum. We are Watching You. During the presidential elections in 2010. A documentary about the campaign has been made: Sherief Elkatsha, Leila Menjou, Shayfeen. We are Watching you (2007)
 Samer Attallah, “Seeking Wealth, Taking Power”, November 18 2014 http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/57252
 Amina Ismail, “Bishop says state of emergency not enough to protect Egypt’s Copts”, reuters.com. April, 13 2017
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the Banality of Evil (NY, Penguin Books: 2006. First edition, 1963): 232-233
In a recent report published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hafsa Halawa writes: “Arab film directors recently have become more politically vocal and garnered international recognition, including Sara Ishaq for her film Karama Has No Walls and Jehane Noujaim for her film The Square. Hafsa, Halawa. “Egypt and the Middle East: Adapting to Tragedy”, in Richard Youngs (ed.), Global Civic Activism in Flux, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 17 <arch 2017. http://carnegieeurope.eu/2017/03/17/global-civic-activism-in-flux-pub-68301#top-content http://carnegieeurope.eu/2017/03/17/global-civic-activism-in-flux-pub-68301#top-content
“I feel like I’m in a f—ing horror movie,” a soldier murmurs as gunfire erupts around him, and his words turn out to be a pretty accurate assessment of Michael Bay’s noisy, nerve-frying account of the widely contested 2012 terrorist attacks that claimed four American lives in Benghazi, Libya. Taking a break from the cultural atrocities of the “Transformers” franchise with this half-successful bid for seriousness, Bay approaches his tinderbox of a subject pretty much the way you’d expect from Hollywood’s most aggressively pro-military director: Largely avoiding the political firestorm in favor of a harrowing minute-by-minute procedural, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is an experiential tour de force but a contextual blur, a shrewdly dumb movie that captures, and perhaps too readily embraces, the extreme confusion of the events as they unfolded on the ground. Most of all, it’s a tribute to the brave U.S. fighters who kept a horrific situation from turning much worse, and it’s on that support-our-troops score — which propelled “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor” to surprise-hit status — that this Paramount release will have its best shot at connecting with war-weary domestic audiences beyond Bay’s fan base.
Adapted by author and first-time feature scribe Chuck Hogan from Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 book (which was written with the surviving members of the Annex Security Team in Benghazi), “13 Hours” has already been described by Bay as his “most real movie.” As a dramatization of a deadly real-life ambush on U.S. forces, it’s certainly an improvement on, say, “Pearl Harbor,” even if it shares with that 2001 misfire a scene shot from the inhuman p.o.v. of a falling rocket. Indeed, many of Bay’s tics and tendencies are on worrying display even in the story’s opening stretch in the fall of 2012: Less than a year after the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, tensions are running higher than ever in the perpetually war-torn port city of Benghazi, and “13 Hours” immediately thrusts us into the mayhem with hard-slamming edits and angry, agitated camerawork. The context may be a foreign one, but the muscular visual language is pure Bay; even a tense early standoff between two Americans and a Libyan militia has all the jacked-up macho swagger of a “Bad Boys” meet-cute.
The two Americans are former Navy SEALs and old friends, Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), private security contractors who have been tapped as part of the CIA’s Global Response Staff to protect U.S. intelligence operatives and diplomats in the city. The other ex-military men serving with the GRS in Benghazi are Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman), and while they are given only minimal character shadings — Boon is the bookish one, Tanto the frat boy, Silva the skilled newcomer, Rone the natural leader — the movie neatly limns the difficult personal circumstances that brought each of these men to this God-forsaken outpost, with Krasinski and Dale providing a sturdy dramatic anchor throughout.
Much as they long to return home to their wives and children (as captured in a few gooey flashbacks and video-chat montages), these men are born soldiers, trained to respond to sudden danger with quick-thinking professionalism and unflinching courage. Due to the unrest that has held sway in the region for centuries (only recent events are described in the opening titles), there are plenty of opportunities for bravery even before Islamic militants attack the U.S. diplomatic compound on Sept. 11, penetrating the building’s formidable defenses and setting a fire that will ultimately claim the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) and Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli). Meanwhile, at the CIA’s Annex a mile away, Rone and his men are ready to respond but are ordered to wait in their vehicles by “Bob” (David Costabile), the top Agency officer in Benghazi, which almost certainly keeps them from reaching Stevens and Smith in time.
That delay was the most damning and controversial revelation in Zuckoff’s book, and Bay, never one to prioritize thought over action, offers a fairly blunt indictment of the bureaucratic thumb twiddling that kept a few good men from saving American lives. Wisely, this is about as far as “13 Hours” goes in pointing the finger of blame. There are a few vague nods to the lack of adequate security, preparation and response: the reliance on unarmed Libyan guards who quickly fled their posts, the realization that the Annex’s location isn’t nearly as classified as originally thought, and the grim discovery that the attacks were not spontaneous but premeditated. Still, the movie generally avoids trafficking in the conspiracy theories and partisan agendas that have turned the word “Benghazi” into a conservative battle cry against the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Whether due to lack of time or inclination (or perhaps the realization that the much-disputed Benghazi narrative calls for greater political nuance than “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”), Bay seems to have determined that simply dramatizing the details of the attack will be challenge enough.
It’s a challenge he accepts, but doesn’t always rise to meet, amid the frenzy of an unrelenting combat sequence that consumes most of the film’s 144-minute running time. Still, under the circumstances, that lack of clarity feels both deliberate and at times appropriate. Bay has a genius for incoherence, and this is one historic crisis that feels uniquely suited to his dubious talents: As the GRS soldiers make their way to the diplomatic compound and then back to the Annex, taking and dispensing heavy fire along the way, “13 Hours” all but revels in its own inscrutability. The men never know whether the Libyans approaching their compound or stopping their car might be hostiles or “friendlies,” and their unease is only exacerbated by lousy communication with U.S. forces back home and at another key base in Tripoli (400 miles away from Benghazi).
Scene after scene, the movie is an exhausting, pulverizing thing to experience, by turns immersive and continually disruptive. Every element of the filmmaking — from the jittery, rapid-fire cutting to the intensely saturated hues of Dion Beebe’s digital lensing, from the cacophonous, bullet-riddled sound design to Lorne Balfe’s equally percussive score — seems to push us out and pull us in with the same hectoring force. It’s a nail-biter and a head-scratcher rolled into one: The mind may initially race to keep up with logistics, but eventually one acknowledges the futility of trying to make sense of a situation that Bay himself hasn’t managed to clarify.
Really, it’s best to let “13 Hours” come at you like a piece of hyperkinetic abstract art, drenched in diesel, blood and testosterone. Beebe, doing his most striking handheld work since Michael Mann’s “Collateral” and “Miami Vice,” captures images of staggering brutality, but there’s an eerie seductiveness to his palette as well, from the regular use of night-vision footage to the sight of this still-beautiful beach city (played by a mix of locations in Morocco and Malta) lit up by fires and flares. Heroes and villains register as indistinct, dirt-caked blurs, and the orders and threats they bark at one another soon blend into an unintelligible background drone: the music of murder and military jargon.
To pause and think seriously about the situation at hand would short-circuit the overwhelming sensory effect that Bay and his collaborators are aiming for. It would also require a screenplay with a deeper understanding of the politics at hand (including the U.S.’ own murky role in the proceedings), and a willingness to put a more human face on the enemy. The aforementioned “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor” also limited themselves to a soldier’s perspective, but they still invested their respective Middle East conflicts with more complexity and empathy than “13 Hours” extends to the Benghazi attackers; a visually striking scene of hijab-clad mothers mourning their fallen militants doesn’t really cut it. Other characters do occasionally register amid the tumult: The terrific Iranian actor Peyman Moaadi (“A Separation”) turns up as a friendly Libyan aide caught up in the horror, while French actress Alexia Barlier plays a defiant CIA operative whose chief narrative purpose is to exalt the heroics of those protecting her.
As one man rather needlessly points out during a moment of anxious downtime, Benghazi is essentially a 21st-century Alamo, and those are the sobering, reductive terms on which Bay’s movie presents itself. It’s no spoiler to note that two GRS soldiers — Rone and Glen Doherty (Toby Stephens), who arrived from his base in Tripoli on the morning of Sept. 12 — will soon perish in a mortar attack on the roof of the Annex. Their deaths, and the astonishing courage of their comrades, confer upon the GRS a nobility that is ambiguous and beyond reproach, and “13 Hours” solicits easy admiration by paying stolid, moving tribute to their sacrifice. Bay’s more generous critics may feel similarly inclined to honor a job well done. He may not have made a remotely great or definitive movie about Benghazi, but he’s surely earned a few points for good behavior.
Film Review: ‘13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’
Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, Jan. 12, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 144 MIN.
Production: A Paramount release and presentation of a 3 Arts Entertainment/Bay Films production. Produced by Erwin Stoff, Michael Bay. Executive producers, Scott Gardenhour, Richard Abate, Matthew Cohan.
Crew: Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay, Chuck Hogan, based on the book “13 Hours” by Mitchell Zuckoff and members of the Annex Security Team. Camera (color, widescreen), Dion Beebe; editors, Pietro Scalia, Calvin Wimmer; music, Lorne Balfe; executive music producer, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; supervising art director, Sebastian Schroeder; art directors, Monica Sallustio, Charlo Dalli, Stefano Maria Ortolani; set decorator, Karen Frick; set designers, Mario Fontana Arnaldi, Marco Furbatto, Shamison Busuttil; costume designer, Deborah L. Scott; sound, Mac Ruth; supervising sound editors, Ethan Van Der Ryn, Erik Aadahl; sound designers, Tobias Poppe, Tim Walston, Brandon Jones; re-recording mixers, Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush; special effects supervisor, Terry Glass; special effects coordinator, Zuzu Milfort; stunt coordinator, Ken Bates; visual effects supervisor, Scott Farrar; visual effects executive producer, Wayne Billheimer; visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; assistant director, Simon Warnock; casting, Denise Chamian, Edward Said.
With: James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Pablo Schreiber, Toby Stephens, Dominic Fumusa, Matt Letscher, David Denman, David Costabile, David Giuntoli, Demetrius Gross, Alexia Barlier, Peyman Moaadi. (English, Arabic dialogue)
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