Jehane Noujaim’s Documentary “The Square”: Channeling Revolutionary Fervor into Representative Constitutionalism

By Kelly Hamren, Juris Doctor Candidate (2014), Northwestern University School of Law

Focusing on Tahrir Square as a microcosm for revolutionary fervor and the political divisions within Egyptian society at large, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary covering both the 2011 popular uprisings that toppled Egypt’s long-time autocratic leader, as well as the country’s post-revolutionary trajectory, provides a penetrating look at the fragility of revolutionary unity and the difficulty of transitioning from revolution to constitutionalism.

Beginning in 2011 with the initial wave of popular protests that led to president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, “The Square” spans a two-year period ending in the summer of 2013 with the removal of Egypt’s first post-revolutionary president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi.  Over the course of this brief time span, Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorial regime cedes authority to the army, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which subsequently transfers power to the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, who, in turn, finally yields power back to the army.  Despite the frequent regime change, very little appears to substantively alter Egypt’s traditional power dynamics. Throughout the film’s cyclical trajectory, Mubarak, the army and Morsi all engage in pervasive human rights abuses, restrict basic political freedoms, and attempt to silence protestors through violence and intimidation.

The period is also punctuated by competing constitutional demands made by those in favor of Islamic rule, on the one hand, and individuals in favor of a secular constitution, on the other hand.  After the Muslim Brotherhood emerges as the dominant political force in Egypt, winning in the parliamentary and presidential elections of January and May 2012, the Islamist dominated constitutional assembly pushes forward a constitution, which, according to the documentary’s secular protagonists, strengthens the role of Islam in the legislative and judicial process and vests the executive with expanded powers.  Describing Morsi as “the new Pharaoh” under the 2012 constitution, secularists despair that they “replaced the military fascist regime of Mubarak with the religious fascist regime of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

By documenting the ups and downs of Egypt’s difficult transition from revolution to constitutional order, “The Square” captures a sense of the myriad obstacles obstructing the country’s path toward constitutionalism.  To begin with, the popular protests that propelled Egypt’s revolution forward in 2011 have proved difficult to harness as a force of post-revolutionary constitutional order.  In the article “From Revolutions to Constitutions:  The Case of Egypt” Anthony F. Lang, Jr. observes, “One of the most difficult aspects of a post-revolutionary transition is the task of turning the constituent power of a revolution into the constitutional form of a political order.”[1]  Noujaim’s documentary casts light on this observation by illustrating the ways in which revolutions unite broad spectrums of society, whereas constitution drafting creates division.  

Through the lens of Noujaim’s documentary, two factors have contributed to the challenge of translating constituent power into a constitutional form of limited government.  First, shared interests in overcoming the political oppression of Mubarak’s regime, which initially served as a source of revolutionary unity, unravel in the face of societal divisions between secularists and Islamists once Mubarak is removed from power.  Second, the highly politicized nature of constitution drafting is substantially different than the politics of mobilizing a popular revolution.  The trajectory of the documentary’s protagonists reflects these larger revolutionary trends.

Noujaim’s “as-it-happens” footage centers on a number of individuals who initially come together at Tahrir Square, but whose revolutionary unity is later tested by their disparate philosophies and political aims.  When the protestors first take to Tahrir Square, a young secular idealist named Ahmed, a middle-aged member of the Muslim Brotherhood named Magdy, and a celebrity human-rights activist named Kahild Abdalla all forge strong bonds based on their common identity as Egyptians in opposition to dictatorial rule.

However, the relationship between Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy becomes increasingly strained over their competing views regarding the appropriate role for religion in Egypt’s new constitutional order.  After the Muslim Brotherhood makes a deal with the Egyptian army to expedite elections in what many secularists describe as an effort to “hijack” the revolution, footage of crowds chanting, “The Quran is our constitution!” and “Islamic rule!  Islamic rule!” is juxtaposed with fervent claims by Ahmed that the revolution represents all Egyptians—Muslims, Christians, and secularists alike.

Following Mubarak’s removal, the protestors who originally united in Tahrir Square struggle to arrive at a consensus about the country’s next steps and achieve constitutional compromise.  Although opposition to Mubarak and the popular revolutionary slogan for “Bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity” was enough to mobilize popular protest, constitution making proves to be a much more competitive and highly politicized process.[2]  In writing about the political nature of constitutionalism, Lang contends that “[r]ather than seeing a constitution as an institution around which interpretative debates take place, constitution-making engages different political actors in a contest over power and influence.”[3]

Functioning as an underground opposition movement throughout Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged from the revolution as the strongest source of organized political opposition.  In the wake of the presidential elections of May 2012 that resulted in the election of Mohammed Morsi and amidst controversy regarding the constitutional assembly’s lack of representativeness, Ahmed, the documentary’s secularist, concludes that “politics are not the same as a revolution.”  He observes that, whereas “as revolutionaries, they only had to protest and object,” “in politics, you need to organize.”  Earlier in the film, Ahmed had insisted, “We made a revolution, we demand a constitution . . . laws, elections, a judiciary . . . everything stems from the constitution.”  However, Ahmed and many other protestors like him struggled to translate demands for a new constitution into more concrete political objectives capable of challenging the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another challenge Egyptian secularists encountered in their efforts to find a political voice was the rushed nature of Egypt’s post-revolution elections.  Before other political parties had an opportunity to organize, parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011, which were largely boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s secularist opposition, resulted in a sweeping victory for the Brotherhood.  Then, in the presidential elections of May 2012, secularist voters were faced with a difficult choice between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi and Mubarak’s former prime minister.

Noujaim’s documentary features a heated argument in which Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian-born actor and human rights activist, debates his mother about the timing of the elections.  Whereas Khalid contends that civil society and political parties need more time to develop, his mother claims that elections need to occur as soon as possible to prevent another authoritarian ruler from exploiting post-revolutionary chaos to declare a state of emergency rule.  Their argument raises important questions about the timing of post-revolutionary transitions to constitutionalism and its impact on long-term popular legitimacy and constitutional stability.

Compared to Egypt’s constitutional tradition, an analysis of Egypt’s 2012 constitution reveals “a number of improvements to the protection of certain rights and to the system of government.”[4]  This is particularly the case with respect to the executive branch, as the 2012 Constitution imposed clear presidential term limits and granted parliament greater independence from the government, as well as more meaningful oversight mechanisms.  Ultimately, however, Morsi’s constitution came under fire more because of its lack of popular legitimacy than its failure to establish procedures for limited government.  Only 32.9% of the Egyptian population voted in the referendum that led to the 2012 constitution’s adoption.[5]  The constitutional assembly was also dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which interpreted its electoral success in parliament as a justification for controlling the process of drafting a new constitution.

In his article on Egypt’s transition to constitutionalism, Lang poses the question of whether constitutions should be ideal documents or instead reflect political compromise.  He concludes that the 2012 Constitution “should be seen as a compromise between conflicting political interests that has created institutions within which claims for rights and responsibilities are still to be negotiated.”[6]  As Egyptian society became increasingly fractured between Islamists and secularists, however, these groups rejected institutional negotiation in favor of protests and street violence.  Noujaim’s documentary thus concludes after millions of Egyptians successfully take to the streets on June 30, 2013 demanding Morsi’s resignation and the constitution’s suspension.

Today, Egypt’s transition to representative constitutionalism is far from over.  Once again under the control of a military-appointed interim government, constitutional amendments that marginalize Islamists and enhance the powers of the military and security services fail to redress the representative imbalances of Morsi’s regime.[7]  Until constitutional reform promotes mechanisms for self-governance and reflects representative politics, the Square will continue to be a focal point in the fight for Egypt’s future.


[1] Anthony F. Lang, Jr., From Revolutions to Constitutions:  The Case of Egypt, 89 Int’l Aff. 345, 347 (2013), available at http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/International%20Affairs/2013/89_2/89_2Lang.pdf.

[2] See Sarah El Masry, Egypt’s Constitutional Experience, Daily News Egypt (Oct. 30, 2012), http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2012/10/30/egypts-constitutional-experience-2/; Lang, supra note 1, at 347-48.

[3] Lang, supra note 1, at 352.

[4] Zaid Al-Ali, The New Egyptian Constitution:  An Initial Assessment of Its Merits and Flaws, Open Democracy (Dec. 26, 2012), http://www.opendemocracy.net/zaid-al-ali/new-egyptian-constitution-initial-assessment-of-its-merits-and-flaws.

[5] Id. 

[6] Lang, supra note 1, at 345.

[7] See Mara Revkin, Worse than Mubarak:  Egypt’s New Constitution and the Police State, ConstitutionNet (Feb. 11, 2014), http://www.constitutionnet.org/news/worse-mubarak-egypts-new-constitution-and-police-state.

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Northwestern students and faculty comment on current events, speaker presentations, and original research.

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