The Square: Will Egyptians be banned from watching their revolution?

A few days ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its final list of nominations for the 2014 Oscars, with the Egyptian film “The Square” in the Best Documentary category. The nomination is the first of its kind since 1962, when Egyptian actor Omar al-Sharif was nominated for best supporting actor in “Lawrence of Arabia.” This year’s nomination was received with more controversy than joy, with heated debates about why “The Square” has not been screened in Egypt, and a state ban seeming like the most plausible explanation.

The film chronicles the events of the Egyptian revolution until the ouster of former President Mohammad Mursi through a laborer, an actor, and a Muslim Brotherhood member. It was scheduled to be screened in Dec. 2013 as part of the sixth edition of the Panorama of European Film, held annually in Cairo, but was cancelled on the same day. “We have been working very hard to give the film an Egyptian premiere,” said a statement by the Panorama organizers following the cancellation. “Getting the permit to screen the film was very difficult and although we were granted authorization, the producers of the film wanted to take the time to work on a wholly Arabic translated version for the Egyptian audience rather than screening the film in its international version. This was however not completed and shipped on time.”

The film’s director, Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim, has a different story. According to her, an official request to screen the film in Egypt was submitted to the censorship authority. “We never received a reply,” she said. Noujaim insisted that the screening of the film was never approved: “What you need in order to show the film in a theater and in public spaces for large audiences is an official letter allowing you to do so. They have not issued that letter.” Although at the time the censorship authority did not respond, the fact that the film was not screened was considered a confirmation of reports that it is officially banned. That is how the international press dealt with it as soon as the Academy nominations were out. This was obvious in headlines such as “The Square: an Egyptian Oscar nominee that won’t be shown in Egypt” in The Guardian, “Banned at home and noticed by Oscars” in the New York Times, and “Oscar nod for banned Egyptian film” in the Sydney Morning Herald.

“I don’t know her and I have never seen her before,” was the response Ahmed Awwad, head of the Egyptian Censorship Authority, to Noujaim’s statement about the request to screen her film. “We only received a request from the organizers of the Panorama of European Film so that the film can be screened in that festival, but the copy to be screened did not arrive on time from abroad,” he said. “All the rumors about banning the film are not true. We did not receive any official request by the film producers and if we do, we will look into it and take all the necessary procedures according to the law,” Awwad added.

Noujaim said the censorship authority has recently asked that another screening request be submitted, adding that the film will be welcomed this time. “We were very happy to hear that,” she said. “Screening the film in Egypt is our ultimate goal and we are ready to engage in all sorts of dialogue with the censorship authority and to answer all their questions.”

In the midst of contradicting statements, speculation is rife as to why the documentary, whose rights were acquired by Netflix – where it is currently streaming – would be banned in Egypt in the first place. Journalist Ola al-Shafei said the film’s content “can be seen as unfair” to the Egyptian army in the way it highlights violations committed by the military when in power, while not focusing at all on the role the army later played in fighting the Brotherhood and restoring stability. Shafei said the new dangers to which Egypt is exposed – such as international conspiracies, internal conflict and terrorist attacks – have changed the reality on the ground, and consequently changed the angle from which the army is to be seen, which was not made clear in the film. Journalist Atef Bishara objects to considering the film a means of documenting the Egyptian revolution because, to him, it contains several inaccuracies. “For example, it is mentioned more than once in the film that the army struck a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood while there is no evidence of that,” he wrote. “Instead of investigating, the filmmakers just took information from social networking websites.”

For film critic Tarek al-Shennawi, it is not the content as much as the message of “The Square” that matters. “The film encourages the people to continue their revolution,” he said. “And I think that is why the film was not screened in Egypt.” Activist Aida al-Kashef, who appears in the film, said “The Square” revives memories that could cause more uprisings. “The film reminds Egyptians that the demands for which they started the revolution, like freedom and dignity, haven’t been met, and that the reality we’re living now confirms this,” she said. For singer and activist Ramy Essam, who also appears in the film, it gives Egyptian youths more hope for the future. “The film reminds the people that despite the obstacles the revolution is facing, the younger generations should still believe in their ability to change reality after they conquered their fears,” he said.

Regardless of the reasons for the alleged ban and how official it is, Noujaim sees the Oscar nomination as one of the best means to fight the state’s attempts at severing the link between Egyptians and their memories, and she explicitly accused the army of that. “In Egypt, the military is trying to whitewash history. The film is banned in Egypt. The nomination gives it incredible attention and energy, and allows for the people back home to know that our story will continue to be heard,” she said.

The nomination, and the international fame it has already brought the film, is bound to place the Egyptian authorities in an awkward position if they insist on not screening it she added. “It is putting the film on an international stage, so that the authorities in Egypt are starting to get phone calls and questions about why the rest of the world is allowed to see this film about a crucially important chapter in Egyptian history, and it’s not being shown to the Egyptian people,” she said.

“The Square” won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan. 2013, when it was presented as a work in progress. The updated version won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September last year.

Egypt’s referendum between a sweeping ‘yes’ and a feeble ‘no’

A few days ago, a documentary entitled “Please Remember: January 14-15,” in reference to the date of the upcoming referendum on the new constitution, drafted after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood rule, was released. The 12- minute long film features interviews with dozens of Egyptians from all over the country with all of them saying they will vote yes in the referendum, with the exception of one who will vote no and two who still need to read the amendments. The documentary was received with enthusiastic support by some and with extreme indignation by others.

For supporters of the new constitution, the film offered an authentic portrayal of Egyptians’ willingness to participate in what they see as a positive step towards democracy. In an article entitled “Sandra Nashaat… That a Girl,” journalist Ahmed Afifi heaps praise on the director, the young woman whose name is mentioned in the title, for her ability to reflect what Egyptians really want and to make all viewers want the same thing.

“She made us feel that we would not be true Egyptians if we do not vote ‘yes’ and do so zealously,” he wrote. “She made us say ‘yes’ even before referendum day. She extracted it from us without pressure and without propaganda. She made us feel the pleasure of ticking ‘yes’ in advance.”

Accurate expose or pure propaganda?

Critics of the film had a totally opposite view, for they viewed it as state-sponsored propaganda that intentionally avoided presenting both sides of the argument. Director Kamla Abu Zikri refused to call the work a documentary.
“It is cheerful and pleasant like a nice clip or a fascinating ad, but it cannot be called a documentary,” she wrote. “This is sheer propaganda and lacks the depth with which documentaries are characterized.”

Activist Wael Abbas simply tweeted, “To fans of Sandra Nashaat, do you remember Leni Riefenstahl?” he asked, referring to the famous German director who was an integral part of the Nazi propaganda machine.

Nashaat refused to categorize her documentary as propaganda and insisted that she did not pick the people she interviewed and that Egyptians across the country will vote for the constitution.

“I found overwhelming approval of the constitution,” she said in an interview. “I was not trying to mobilize the people. I was simply reflecting public opinion as it is and as you could see only one person supported Mursi’s legitimacy compared to hundreds who want stability and who see the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.”

The majority of civilian powers, which played an important role in mobilizing the June 30 protests that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood and many of whose leaders were members of the committee that drafted the new constitution, declared their support for a yes vote.

Political leaders: constitution imperfect, but step in the right direction

Mohammad Abul Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and member of the drafting committee concurred that the constitution “is not the ideal outcome of the Jan. 25 Revolution,” yet added that it is “remarkable in terms of the rights and freedoms it grants to Egyptians.”

In a conference the party organized under the slogan “Supporting the Constitution,” Abul Ghar enumerated the advantages of the new constitution like freedom of faith, freedom of the press, gender equality, and the limitation of the president’s powers. The implementation of such articles, he noted, requires a powerful parliament that works on drafting the necessary legislations.

“That is why legislators have to represent the people because only then will the people be able to benefit from this constitution,” he concluded. Member parties of the National Salvation Front, the main opposition bloc against Muslim Brotherhood rule, similarly supported the new constitution.

Former presidential candidate and head of the Egyptian Popular Current Hamdeen Sabahi considers a yes vote “a renewal of confidence in the roadmap charted in the aftermath of the June 30 protests with the approval of the Egyptian people.”

Endorsing the constitution, he added, is a continuation of the path started on Jan. 25, 2011: “Those who will vote yes will be endorsing the text of the constitution as well as the revolutions of Jan. 25 and June 30, hence adding constitutional legitimacy to revolutionary legitimacy.”

Sabahi expected the freedoms and rights stated in the constitution to earn it a sweeping yes vote among the Egyptian population.

The Rebel movement, which started the signature collection campaign to topple Mursi, also declared its support for the constitution. “It is not a flawless constitution, but it is definitely better than 1971 and 2012,” the movement said in a statement in reference to the constitutions that were in force during the times of Mubarak and Mursi, respectively. The movement expressed its objection to an article that allows the trial of civilians before military courts, yet praised other articles it saw as a success.

“There are very good articles on social justice, rights and freedoms, and people with disabilities,” the statement added. “This constitution gives all segments of the Egyptian society their rights.”

Civilian powers were joined by the ultra-conservative al-Nour Party, which took part in the roadmap that followed Mursi’s ouster.

Despite disagreements with civilian committee members over articles involving Islamic law, party chairman Yunes Makhioun called for a yes vote adding that “Egypt is going through a critical time, the time of to be or not to be,” he said in a statement. In response to reservations about crossing out an article that offered a strict interpretation of Islamic law, from a Sunni point of view, Makhioun argued that the constitution is not expected to be perfect. “This is a work of human beings after all, so it has to have negative and positive sides,” he explained. “Plus each party had to display some flexibility so that we can move on.”

Sheikh Yasser Borhami, a prominent leader of the Salafi movement in Egypt and member of al-Nour Party, warned that three disasters will take place if the constitution is not approved. “One is the collapse of the state, the economy, and security; two is the division of the army; and three is foreign intervention,” he said in a conference held in support of the constitution in Alexandria.

Government, religious officials weigh in

Approval of the constitution took a more official shape as interim president Adli Mansour openly praised the new draft through urging the people to vote in order “to fulfill our revolution the way we wanted it with a constitution that marks the first step to a civil, democratic state.”

One day before, Minister of Defense and Army Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did the same when he linked the new constitution to the Jan. 25 and June 30 revolutions and urged Egyptians to make a change similar to the one they made on those two days through taking part in the referendum. He also praised the constitution saying, “it achieved real balance, harmony, and justice.”

The constitution also acquired religious leverage as senior Muslim and Christian clerics took part in the campaign supporting the constitution.

Former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa stressed that approving the constitution “will show the entire world the difference between Egyptians and those who seek to shed Egyptian blood” while Coptic Pope Tawadros II argued that the passing of the constitution “is bound to bring Egypt a lot of blessings.”

‘Strong Egypt Party’ vocalizes strong opposition

Not all factions that took part in the June 30 protests against the Muslim Brotherhood approve the constitution, though. The Strong Egypt Party, founded by former Muslim Brotherhood member and former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh announced the group’s boycott of the referendum after declaring earlier that it would vote no. In a statement it issued less than 24 hours before the first day of the referendum, the party voiced its objection to what followed the ouster of Mursi by the military.

“We object to the bloodshed, the detentions, and the violations and the way they deepened divisions and destabilized security,” said the statement. “And we object to the return of Mubarak’s repressive regime.”

The statement added that the referendum is being held in “an atmosphere that violates the most basic internationally acknowledged democratic rules,” in reference to the arrest of several of party members as they were campaigning against the constitution.

The April 6 movement announced its boycott of the referendum, yet proclaimed its intention to monitor it in order “to issue reports that expose violation and evaluate the referendum process as a whole,” according to the movement’s statement. The decision comes in defiance of the Higher Elections Committee which banned members of the movement from monitoring the poll.

The movement, however, called upon Egyptians to vote no to the constitution, citing its objection to 20 articles in the new draft. “The constitution gives the president and the military a lot of powers and allows the trial of civilians before military courts,” said Khaled al-Masry, member of the April 6 politburo.

The pro-Muslim Brotherhood National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy urged Egyptians to boycott the referendum and stage protests against “a new massacre to complete the usurpation of the homeland,” as the group said in a statement. “Do not listen to the leaders of the coup, for blood is dripping from their mouths,” the statement added.


The Fahita affair: Egyptian puppetry and terrorism

“Egypt’s latest terror suspect: The popular felt-and-yarn puppet Abla Fahita,” read a Washington Post headline. It was referring to a complaint filed against a cellphone provider for allegedly using the popular character in an internet ad to send coded messages that instruct Muslim Brotherhood members to carry out terrorist operations.

There have been similarly sarcastic headlines in the international press, such as “Egyptian puppet Abla Fahita accused of terrorism” in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Silly season in Egypt: Hounding the Muppet Brotherhood” in The Economist, and “Egyptian puppet called terrorist mouthpiece” in the New York Times.

This gives an insight into the general reaction to the investigation into the alleged collaboration between Vodafone and the Brotherhood, now officially designated a terrorist group. Such sarcasm is also apparent in the local media, and especially on social networking websites.

Activists have posted pictures of local and international puppets declaring their support for Fahita. There is a cartoon in which an interrogator shows Fahita a photo of Kermit, the frog from the Muppet Show, and accuses her of receiving funding from an American puppet. The hashtag #freefahita has been created on Twitter.

Sarcasm, however, is giving way to alarm as fears grow over the ominous nature of such a step by the authorities. “It says a lot about the patriotism frenzy we’re in,” said political analyst Ziad Akl of Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. “There’s definitely a sentiment of fascist nationalism that you either subscribe to, or face being labeled a traitor.”

He added: “We’re laughing about the puppet now, but replace the puppet with anything else – another symbol, another figure – and the media can manipulate and do anything with it in this climate.”

British-Egyptian blogger Sarah Carr wrote in her entry “Laughing till we cry”: “The current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated.”

In her article “Egypt adds puppetry to its enemy of the state list,” published in Foreign Policy, Katelyn Fossett wrote that the government is especially clamping down on popular satirists. She gave the example of Bassem Youssef, whose TV show was terminated for making fun of the military. Fossett sees the “the puppet witch-hunt” as a continuation of that policy. “It hasn’t been an easy year for satire in Egypt,” she wrote.

The Interior Ministry’s media department published on its Facebook page a statement that “unintelligible codes and symbols have been published on Abla Fahita’s pages on social networking websites in violation of the law.” The statement added that even though it is still not known whether those codes and symbols are real, the creators of the puppet have to be arrested and questioned.

The former deputy head of general intelligence, Tharwat Gouda, said Fahita is “American-made,” and is “a code channel” used by the Brotherhood and the revolutionary April 6 Youth Movement “to coordinate acts of violence against the police and the army and for mobilization.

“Gouda added that Khairat al-Shater, the imprisoned Brotherhood deputy supreme guide, has given instructions from jail to members and supporters of the groups to use Fahita to send coded messages “to wreak havoc in the country.”

Journalist Mohamed Ramzy asked in his article “Abla Fahita and cryptography”: “Is it possible that the media can be used by secret organizations for sending coded messages?” He did not answer the question, but said the majority of prominent American TV networks and newspapers are owned by Jews and Zionists.

“There is no doubt that there is a close relationship between the tycoons of Western media and secret Zionist organizations, on top of which are Masonic organizations which are known for using symbols and cryptic messages and these are well-connected with most if not all secret organizations that are known and unknown to us,” he wrote.

Vodafone has issued a statement denying all allegations listed in the complaint, refusing to get involved in “the details of such irrational interpretations and accusations,” and calling the charges “mere imagination.” Vodafone spokesman Khaled Hegazy said: “I’m sad we’ve reached this level of thinking.”