Jehane Noujaim’s ‘The Square’: Enthralling and Frustrating

Jehane Noujaim‘s The Square is an enthralling and frustrating documentary record of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. It tells its story by holding a steady narrative focus on a small cast of central characters and tracking the revolution’s rise and fall–so to speak–from the glory of Hosni Mubarak‘s resignation to its co-optation by a variety of counterrevolutionary forces (the military, the Muslim Brotherhood). As The Square ends after Mohamed Morsi‘s downfall in July 2013, we see Tahrir Square–the emotional epicenter of the revolution–once again serving as a focal point for the possible mustering of those forces that had brought about the first showdown with Mubarak’s regime.  The revolution, it is clear, is unfinished business.

The Square is emotionally affecting. We witness the fervor and sentiment and passion of the hundreds of thousands that gathered in Tahrir Square to bring down first, Mubarak, and then, Mohamed Morsi; we are horrified and appalled at the violence visited on them by the police, the army and a motley crew of hired thugs; we listen in on articulate and angry debate between those who come together in the revolution even as they are riven by ideology.

The Square is also a curiously decontextualized record of what has been happening in Egypt over the last three years. The close attention paid to Khalid Abdalla, Ramy Essam, Magdy, Ahmed Saleh and The Square‘s other central characters prevents both a panning-out or a further zooming in. We are told absolutely nothing about the mechanics of the revolution: the grass-roots organizing that enabled a powerful totalitarian regime to be toppled surely deserved a closer look.

Many questions thus remain unanswered. We do not know why Mubarak was brought down; we fail to understand the significance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics. Why is Magdy, the member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is so clearly conflicted about their role in the revolution, so worried about his fate if the ‘liberals’ were to come to power? And why is he the only voice of such a significant counterrevolutionary force? For that matter, who are the Muslim Brotherhood? Have they ever been in power before? How was a gathering in one urban zone able to bring down a despot? Surely, just large gatherings alone do have such revolutionary effects? Did any revolutionary activity occur outside Cairo? Egyptian history and politics are complicated; their casts of characters are large and driven by a variety of ideological and intellectual motivations; these all deserved just a little more attention.

Perhaps my complaints are misplaced; Noujaim’s worst sin might only have been to presume her viewers had done their homework. But can those who make movies about the Middle East afford to be so complacent in their presumptions? Especially when the relationship between religion and state is as complicated as it is in the Islamic world? In these times, every documentary about that region of the world is in the envious position of being able to seize upon the many teachable moments its currents events provide.

Noujaim shouldn’t have hesitated to edify us.

Liberal Democracies and Armed Insurrections: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

Jeff McMahan has an interesting article–Why Gun Control Is Not Enough–over at The Stone today (New York Times, 20 December 2012). I agree with him that gun ownership does not have the salutary political effects that its most fervent, Second Amendment-quoting advocates claim it does, even though I don’t agree with McMahan’s conclusion that ‘the United States should ban private gun ownership entirely, or almost entirely.’  In any case, in this post, I want to focus on one exceedingly curious claim that McMahan makes in response to the former Congressman Jay Dickey, Republican from Arkansas, who is quoted as saying,

We have a right to bear arms because of the threat of government taking over the freedoms we have.

In response, McMahan says:

There is, of course, a large element of fantasy in Dickey’s claim. Individuals with handguns are no match for a modern army.  It’s also a delusion to suppose that the government in a liberal democracy such as the United States could become so tyrannical that armed insurrection, rather than democratic procedures, would be the best means of constraining it.  This is not Syria; nor will it ever be.  Shortly after Dickey made his comment, people in Egypt rose against a government that had suppressed their freedom in ways far more serious than requiring them to pay for health care. Although a tiny minority of Egyptians do own guns, the protesters would not have succeeded if those guns had been brought to Tahrir Square. If the assembled citizens had been brandishing Glocks in accordance with the script favored by Second Amendment fantasists, the old regime would almost certainly still be in power and many Egyptians who’re now alive would be dead.

Why is it a ‘delusion’ to suppose that a liberal democracy could not become so tyrannical that those subject to it might consider armed insurrection a viable response? Is this a conceptual truth about liberal democracies? Why would ‘armed insurrection’ never be the ‘best means of constraining it’? And why is McMahan so confident that the US will ‘never’ be Syria? This is a prophecy, not an argument, one that does not seem to consider what might happen if this country had been subjected to more than one 9/11 attack. One of those was enough to see a crackdown on minorities, the passing of regressive legislation, the declaration of two wars, and the commission of war crimes. What would have a couple more of those have done?

McMahan’s example of the Egyptian overthrow of their government is also curious. If the insurrection in Egypt had been an armed one, the protesters would not have congregated in Tahrir Square to present themselves as sitting ducks for the Egyptian police and armed forces. Rather, they would have concentrated on other tactics: assassinations, attempts to take over or destroy government property and so on.  The Tahrir Square assemblies took place precisely because the ‘revolution’ was sought to be conducted by public, visible, attention-gathering, solidarity-generating means.  The insurrection would have been conducted very differently once armed violence was chosen as one of its modalities.

Whatever the arguments for gun control, and I think there are many excellent ones out there, including some that McMahan uses in his piece, complacency about ‘liberal democracy’ shouldn’t feature in them.

Distraction, Political Activism Online, and the Neglected Physical Sphere

Frank Pasquale left a very interesting comment on my post yesterday, highlighting the political implications of the attention deficit disorder that the ‘Net facilitates and enhances. (Please read the full comment, and if you have the time, chase down the wonderful links that Pasquale provides. Ironic advice, perhaps, given the subject under discussion.)

I want to respond to the opening statement of  Pasquale’s comment:

Rather than empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism, the web may just distract us from them.

In particular, I want to do so by focusing on a kind of activism that suggests itself as a natural strategy to all too many today, that the way to be politically active, an ‘agent of change,’ is to be a ‘thought leader’: to blog, tweet, Facebook-discuss, Twitter-converse, to ‘influence the conversation’ by jumping into the online fracas, dishing out our own, assuredly-unique contribution to the mix. After all, we’re changing minds, one at time, by sending on all these links, writing all these posts, pushing and prodding information hither-n-thither, directing it in the appropriate ways to the appropriate folks. Aren’t we?

So that’s what we do, staying online as we do so, perpetuating and sustaining a set of persistent fantasies associated with the Internet. One of these is the illusion that one’s Internet audience is all there is, all that one needs to worry about. So, when we step out into physical space, away from our keyboards, our activist energies depleted, our work for the day is done. The keyboard is where I do my political work. We’re all cyber-journalists, cyber-polemicists, cyber-pamphleteers, cyber-radical presses now.

My worry about this is the converse of the fear expressed in Frank’s comment: that not just may the web distract us from ’empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism,’ it might tempt us into discharging our political batteries online. It might lead us to disdain the boring, tedious, often unrewarding forms of collective action that are still required in physical space to make political change happen: Do I really need to go for that rally when I’ve already done my bit by forwarding fifty links from the bloggers with the biggest Klout? Why bother attending activist meetings when I’m leading the conversation online?

The excessive attention paid to–and the hosannas showered on–social media tools during the Arab Spring, and indeed, protests elsewhere in the world, seem to have convinced all too many–who I suspect were already primed for such news–that physical space interactions can now be disdained in favor of social-media-capital-accumulation. All to be spent on political purchases, of course.

But this well-intended strategy goes all too wrong, all too quickly. For online is where we stay, distracted, and satisfied by retweets, forwards, link-backs, and Facebook-shares. Sure, we aren’t turned on by the ka-ching of cash registers–we are too elevated for that–but we love watching other numbers pile up. Paying too much attention to those is a diversion too, away from the grubbiness, messiness, and persistent intractability of political work in the physical sphere.