(Originally published in the Christian Courier) — The Egyptian documentary The Square begins in the dark. “This is normal,” says a young man named Ahmed as he lights a candle to brighten up a Cairo room. “The lights are out all over the world. The lights are out all over Egypt,” he explains. “Everything is like this, it’s not just the electricity. The electricity is the least of our problems.”
Viewers who have been following news reports and stories of the Egyptian revolution of the past three years already know this is true; Egypt’s people are well acquainted with the problems of oppression, corruption and violence. For 30 years, they lived under Hosni Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship. They know what it means to be powerless – and, because of the events that followed the Arab Spring of 2011, they also know the exhilaration of power reclaimed.
The Square allows us to enter the country’s toilsome journey of fear, hardship and hope by focusing on a handful of protesters on the front lines undertaking the beautiful and dangerous work of building democracy from the ground up.
Christian viewers expecting a documentary highlighting the plight of modern Egyptian believers will quickly see that this is not the film’s focus. The “revolutionaries” have varying religious and political beliefs and class backgrounds. Their differing motivations and histories speak to the complexity of this conflict. They are united, nonetheless, in their desire to bring down the regime and their commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless.
Director Jehane Noujaim uses original firsthand footage to explore what draws these men and women together as their country falls apart. This approach feels deeply personal, and makes the film more than just a portrait of national identity but a call to recognize shared humanity as well.
The Square’s graceful handling of the revolution’s quickly shifting timeline is commendable in itself. The film begins just before Mubarak is ousted then chronicles the chaos that followed – the corrupt rushed election of Morsi, his eventual removal, and the horrific military crackdowns on civilians.
Fresh-faced Ahmed could be considered the film’s “main character.” He is a passionate, good natured and idealistic young man swept up in the promise of renewal at the heart of the revolution. Most people will have an easy time identifying with him and or imagining him as their brother, son or friend. His friend Khalid, a highly educated actor who uses his status as a public figure to add media exposure to the protest movement, is also easy to admire.
Madgy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is at first an unlikely source of empathy for the typical Christian viewer. However, he shows himself to be a man of sincere faith and commitment to the non-violent principles of democracy – the very principles that have him proud to stand alongside his revolutionary friends and people of many faiths in the Square. He is painted by the actions of his party, especially when others accuse the Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution by selling out to the whims of the military. “We are all confused sometimes, and we question our beliefs,” he says – and surely most Christians have felt such conflicted allegiance, too.
Ultimately, though, this is not a movie about the triumph of any one political movement or revolutionary push. It is about people – Christians, Muslims, men, women, everyone who believes, as a protest slogan goes, that “All men are entitled to “bread, dignity, freedom and happiness.”
But more than that, this harshly poetic film is about what was found in the dark – in Tahrir Square: loyalty and unity that transgressed long-held political and religious lines. “We found ourselves loving each other without even realizing it. There was no such thing as Muslim or Christian. We were all one hand,” says Ahmed. Although this love is constantly tested, it persists. You can hear it, for example, in the phone conversation between Madgy and Ahmed near the end of the film, even though they have bitterly argued about a secular state versus a Muslim state. “You know me. I’m not here to die or kill. You know my intentions,” Madgy says to his friend, warning him not to come to the Square because he could be harmed. These men recognize they both have a deep desire to do what’s best for Egypt.
As of early 2014, Egypt faces a difficult future – even in the wake of a newly drafted constitution that appears to take religious freedom and other democratic principles into account. Outgoing housing minister Ibrahim Mahlab has been appointed as Egypt’s new prime minister, and strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been elected as President.
The Square reveals, however, that Egypt’s hope is about more than who officially stands in power. As the film ends, Ahmed observes that Egyptians “are not looking for a leader as much as we’re looking for a conscience. Because everyone who went to Tahrir is a leader.”
This long view of victory recognizes that true, lasting democratic change is larger than political structures. It is, instead, a movement toward goodness and justice that takes place in the hearts of the people willing to give their all for a cause greater than themselves.