Exactly a year after the beginning of the uprising in Egypt (25/1/12), the film Tahrir, Liberation Square, by the Italian documentary maker, Stefano Savona, sponsored by the International League for Human Rights (ILHR) and supported by ‘independent’ producers, came out in a number of cinemas in France.
In the preamble to the film, besides an animation of a singer and a musician, celebrating the revolt of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, we're reminded that today the mobilisation on Tahrir Square still continues, and that there are still around 15,000 political detainees in the gaols, although the army has symbolically released 200 other prisoners on the anniversary of what all Egyptians proudly call “the Revolution”.
We should remember, however, that the army still holds the reins of power in this country after the recent elections, where two-thirds of the Parliament is composed of Islamic parties (the Muslim Brotherhood who formally have a majority) plus the Salafists. So nothing has changed since the departure of a dictator to be replaced by... the open dictatorship of the army. And above all, besides the repression, there is no improvement in the poverty and the living conditions of the exploited, now stuck between a rock and a hard place, between the army, democratic illusions and the political influence of the Islamic parties.
For its ‘premiere’ in Paris, the film was also followed by a live debate with the producer in which we participated.
Filmed with a simple hand-held Canon 5D camera, this documentary involves us more closely in the faces and movements of the crowd, the life of tens of thousands of participants and their chance meetings. Over 12 days and, through the eye of the producer, we follow some of the protagonists throughout some of the ‘days of anger’ from the sixth day of the occupation of the square to the announcement of the resignation of Mubarak on 11 February, and in the final images some questions about the future.
The problem with this film is that it pretends, through its aspect of a documentary, to be a witness of living history which is taking place inside Tahrir Square thus giving itself a certain stamp of ‘objectivity’ that's supposedly proper to journalistic reporting showing the reality of life as it happens in front of our eyes. But this film is anything but objective. Not only does it show reality from a certain point of view, but its bias of filming this reality from the inside ends up in partiality, focusing the attention on a very narrow and limited surface as with a magnifying glass, keeping in the shade, or outside the field of vision, the framework which would allow us to see the entirety and understand it.
Whereas the movement in Egypt is not limited to what was happening on Tahrir Square, the latter is presented as the sole point of reference. There's not a single echo, nor any concern for the wave of workers' strikes which swept across the country and which really pushed Mubarak, under pressure from the United States, to quit. If the army did not intervene at this point, if one of the first measures was to forbid strikes, it is because these strikes almost paralysed the country and played a major role in the course of events. The film gives the illusion, the distorted vision, that the sole force of the movement came from the occupation of Tahrir Square. An article on the film in le Monde, (25/1/12) gives the comment: “What does the film show us? First of all an extraordinary effervescence, a palpable intoxication, an exciting reconquest of freedom of speech and movement” It's true. And this intoxication overcomes the spectator as well as the participants themselves paralysing any effort of reflection. In this way, the film takes and leads us to immediately share the emotions and feelings of the crowd in placing us in the middle of the participants without allowing any space for reflection, it espouses its point of view with a maximum of empathy, engagement: its angers, its fears, hopes, doubts, its explosions of joy at the announcement of the fall of a tyrant. The le Monde article continues : “Then (it shows) a diversity of faces, ages, sexes, backgrounds, relationships, mixed attitudes, self-respecting, unifying in the same crowd, in the same challenge, the same fight. Some bearded, some clean-shaven, some people praying, others in keffiyehs, young women carrying stones, youths who throw them, older people that support them. In a word, people on the move, a utopia realised”. And this “utopia” was not realised but bore dangerous illusions and a maximum of confusion with a double label: Democracy and the Revolution of the people.
However, even through the deformed prism of this truncated reality, some aspects of the situation at the time are striking to the spectator. First of all the courage given by the collective: “we are no longer afraid”, the determination: “we will go right to the end to get rid of Mubarak” and the solidarity of the participants: men and women unknown to each other beforehand talking together, protecting each other, sleeping side by side in temporary shelters – tent material or shower curtains – without the least problem, each bringing their own food for the collective. It shows the courageous fight, with bare hands, against the police, against the snipers or against the hordes of criminals released and recruited by Mubarak, including killers handsomely paid and sent to attack the occupiers of the square. It shows the impotence of a high grade military machine incapable of making itself understood and the utilisation of Twitter by some youth to appeal to meet up at various points and go to other strategic points where there was a need for reinforcement in order to ‘hold’ onto territory. Information was widely circulated by word of mouth and there were continual movements across the square. Another striking element is the absence of any general assembly, despite “free-speech”. There’s no collective discussions and decisions on the orientation of the movement outside of small informal groups of discussion on the situation or on the future. At the beginning of the film, some of the people raise the question of demonstrations in other towns, their origins, their jobs. At one moment, this diversity is reflected when three youths talk together: one is a country lad, the other a city dweller, the third a Bedouin, sometimes they give their opinion or state their respective sympathies for such or such fraction, three or four at the most. They talk fraternally to each other despite their different convictions, especially religious and secular. We see some speeches followed by small groups of the Muslim Brotherhood, a few fiery individual speeches, often moving in front of the camera and above all the slogans repeated ad nauseam: “The people want regime change”, “Mubarak must go!”, “The Egyptian people are us, we are here”, “Long live Egypt!” in the middle of a sea of national flags held aloft by individuals or some very large ones flown over the crowd. Because nationalism, the preoccupation of the fate and interests of the country is omnipresent in the square and, it seems, is shared by everyone. Each participant recognises themselves with all the others as “the people” without the least class connotation. Here, the mirage of democracy is functioning. And directly, the trap springs shut. The trap is precisely all the ideological values put forward by the bourgeoisie and the speeches full of illusions that run through this film: someone says it: “the people are united here as the fingers on the hand” around the single idea of “getting rid of Mubarak”. But this will to dump Mubarak and his detested regime alone creates an artificial inter-classist unity: “What we want, what everyone wants, is to overthrow this regime”. Young and old, veiled women or not, religious or secular, Muslim or Christian all say the same, and after that we will see what happens. At the end of the film, after the scenes of celebration provoked by the announcement of Mubarak’s departure with many breaking camp to return home, a woman warns however: “now it’s the army which has full power and suspends our liberties, we shouldn’t leave here, it’s against them that we must continue to mobilise and fight”.
In short, the film is entirely to the glory of the conquest of this democratic dream of which “the Egyptian people” are the heroes. Moreover, new arrivals to the square were welcomed with shouts of “Here they are, the heroes of the nation!” Everyone wants to find a hero or an iconic leader, the crowd wanted a young, imprisoned demonstrator, released after 12 days, to come to the tribune, but scared by the ovations he refuses to speak.
The film insidiously invites us to join with and delight in what is shown to the contrary to be great weaknesses, the immaturity of the revolt and above all the nationalist poison massaged by the pride of having got rid of Mubarak. Alongside the weight of religion, these democratic illusions weigh very heavily on the exploited in the uprising in Egypt. It is moreover, the notions of the people, democracy and revolution which are exploited throughout the “debate” after the film. Whereas most questions of the producer asked about the filming process or about the meetings with people followed throughout the film, three questions showed their unease or called into question the term “revolution” use to describe events in Egypt. One of them said that real revolutions hadn't happened very often in history and the film maker replied saying that living through those days had been an exceptional experience and what had happened had a lasting effect on consciousness including his own. And this is what justifies using the term “revolution”. This “contestationist” element briefly spoke to say that, minus the national flags, the phenomenon was not dissimilar to May 68 in France without anyone calling that a revolution. The response by the producer and his entourage was that this was the beginning of a revolutionary process which was still ongoing because the mobilisation of those at Tahrir wasn't finished, and he finally responded by saying that the question had unnecessarily pessimistic implications. A comrade from the ICC spoke on several levels: on the absence of any reference to the workers' mobilisation in events, on the fact that the film and the debate takes Egypt as an absolute reference point whereas this movement took place in the framework of an international social protest recently. This was expressed almost everywhere and we find it with the Indignant movement of Spain or Greece, Occupy in Britain or the United States in the face of a global crisis of the system. Finally, he recalled that the revolt and the birth of the movement in Tunisia took off from economic demands over unemployment, poverty and the hiking of food prices, not in order to demand more liberty and democracy. He again insisted on the fact that this had been underestimated in the debate on Egypt whereas the precariousness of life and unemployment were strong in Egypt, but the sole expression of this element of protest in the film was one of the protesters shouting out “120 pounds for a kilo of lentils!” The producer tried quite clumsily to counter the importance of element of economic demands, even denying that they played a major role in Tunisia. A member of the team associated with the film more subtly admitted that workers' strikes had also played an important role in the uprising notably since the wave of strikes in 2007/8 in the textile factories of Mahalla and elsewhere in the Nile Delta. And following this the “April 6 Movement” while at Tahrir there were bits of bread stuck to posters expressing the economic aspects. After this the debate, doubtlessly to avoid the discussion taking a more “political” turn, was quickly closed by the organisers.