The 2011 Egyptian Revolution Revisited
Welcome to The 2011 Egyptian Revolution Revisited
This year marks five years of military rule in Egypt. For many Egyptians, it has been half a decade that stands in stark contrast to the revolutionary optimism that followed the spectacular protests of January 2011.
This film weekend* presents four films that explore different aspects of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its aftermath. All the films present the personal dimensions of these events and convey some of the euphoria and optimism as well as disappointments and trauma experienced by ordinary Egyptians who participated in them. The films reveal a more complex picture of political transformations than is often portrayed in international media reporting as well as official Egyptian narratives of events. The programme shines light on contemporary Egyptian films as an important source for understanding Egypt’s recent past.
This programme is organised as part of a wider research project, entitled ‘Politics and Popular Culture in Egypt: Contested Narratives of the 25 January Revolution and its Aftermath’,** led by Nicola Pratt (University of Warwick) in conjunction with Dalia Mostafa (University of Manchester), Dina Rezk (University of Reading) and Sara Salem (London School of Economics).
The wider project has revealed the significance of popular culture, including film, but also music, cartoons, graffiti, political satire and TV drama series and talk shows, to be an important lens through which to understand political dynamics after January 2011. Popular culture has been a crucial medium through which ordinary people have presented their stories and expressed their viewpoints in the public sphere. For that very reason, popular culture has also been the target of censorship and other efforts by authorities to enshrine an official version of events.
Popular culture constitutes a key site in the struggle over the meaning of the 25 January 2011 uprising and plays an important role in shaping collective memory. As the regime of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi tries to script the official narrative of events since 2011, it becomes increasingly important to document the revolution’s diverse histories and capture popular voices threatened with repression and erasure from the historical record.
* This event is funded by the University of Warwick and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (ES/M500434/1) and supported by HOME.
**The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) (AH/N004353/1).
On 25 January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Port Said, Arish and other major cities. Inspired by the Tunisian people, who had risen up against their own repressive regime a few weeks earlier, they bravely faced up to the violence of the Egyptian police and demanded an end to the institutional and systematic brutality of the security apparatus and the resignation of the Minister of the Interior (Home Secretary).
Very quickly, the protests gained momentum and transformed into a fully-fledged popular uprising, demanding the downfall of the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1981. Mubarak oversaw the violation of human rights and repression of political activists and opposition groups, as well as growing social and economic inequalities and rampant corruption. He was planning the succession of his son Gamal to the presidency, threatening more of the same for ordinary Egyptians.
Men and women of all ages and social classes participated in what has been called a ‘leaderless revolution’. The iconic Tahrir (‘Liberation’) Square in downtown Cairo became a symbol of resistance for the whole nation. The protesters chanted “The people want the fall of the regime”, whilst demanding ‘Bread, freedom, social justice and dignity.’ After 18 days of protests and the occupation of public squares and streets, Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011 and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over.
During the period of SCAF rule, protests were ongoing, demanding justice for those killed by security forces, known as the martyrs of the revolution. Hundreds more were killed in clashes with security forces and thousands were arrested. In June 2012, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was voted into power as Egypt’s first freely elected president. However, opposition to Morsi quickly emerged as Egyptians saw him as yet another dictator, who was betraying the goals of the revolution.
On 30 June 2013, there were massive protests against Morsi, prompting the military to intervene to remove him on 3 July. This was followed by the bloody suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. In January 2014, Egyptians approved a new constitution that was meant to pave the way for a democratic transition. In June 2014, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, head of the military, was elected as Egypt’s new president. Since then, the military and police have worked to erase the achievements of the 2011 revolution and have subjected Egyptians to unprecedented levels of repression and violence in the name of ensuring Egypt’s security and stability.
Dir. Mohamed Diab (15) Contains strong violence, injury detail
Egypt/2016/Arabic with English subtitles/98min
Demonstrators of divergent political and religious backgrounds are forcibly detained together in a claustrophobic police truck during the turmoil following the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi.
This is one of the only films of this programme that achieved real commercial success within Egypt. According to an interview with the director, 150,000 tickets were sold within 6 weeks. It is also perhaps the most ‘traditional’ of the Egyptian films presented here; a fictional but realistic drama featuring the popular Egyptian actress Nelly Karim as the strong, female lead. It has unconventional characteristics too, however. The film was shot in 27 days and is set entirely within the confines of an 8-metre-square police truck. It has a lack of structure, with no ‘plot’ as such but seeks to show the possibility of co-existence and moments of humanity in a polarised and fearful political environment.
Some questions to consider:
1) How does this film make you feel and why? What emotions do you think the filmmaker wants to evoke in you?
2) How are the police depicted in this film and how does this contrast with portrayals of security forces in the other films in this programme?
3) Why was the setting of the film within the confines of a police truck important? What do you think it might symbolise?
Dir. Ahmed Nour (15)
Documentary/Animation /Egypt/2013/Arabic with English subtitles/71min
It was in the extraordinary and historic city of Suez that the first martyr of the Egyptian revolution fell. But the city has long been the gateway to Egypt’s most decisive, transformative moments. Home to the strategic Suez Canal, the port was a key asset in the British imperial project, attacked by British-Israeli-French forces in 1956, during the infamous ‘Suez Crisis’, and destroyed in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Despite its importance, the film shows how the people of Suez feel left behind and neglected by Egypt’s political elites.
Exploring the significance of his hometown and its unique experience and role in the 2011 revolution, Suez-born filmmaker Ahmed Nour tells a highly personal story. He uses his own voice, animation techniques and a poetic style of sound and cinematography to capture the essence of the revolution’s generation, its hopes and its disappointments.
Some questions to consider:
1) Why is it important to consider more ‘local’ revolutionary perspectives, beyond Egypt’s capital, Cairo?
2) How is the experience of revolution in Suez similar and different from the stories told in the other films in this programme?
3) Why and how does the filmmaker use amination to tell his story? What role do these cinematic techniques play in the film?
Al Midan (The Square)
Dir. Jehane Noujaim (15) Contains strong language, real violence, injury detail
Documentary/Drama/Egypt/2013/Arabic and English/1h 8min
This Oscar-nominated documentary follows the trajectory of several Tahrir Square protestors who took part in the first 18 days of the 2011 revolution, as they continue to participate in demonstrations and sit-ins following the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak until the removal of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The documentary reveals the dramatic struggles and challenges these friends from different walks of life face in a shared quest to build a better Egypt in the aftermath of dictatorship. We see also how these characters change over time, and how their perspectives of the revolution and experiences of street politics shape their lives and their relationships with one another. The story ends just after the brutal massacre of Muslim Brotherhood protestors in the summer of 2013, leaving the future of Egypt’s revolution up in the air. The film has never been shown in Egypt.
Some questions to consider:
1) Do documentaries, such as this one, have a privileged relationship to ‘the truth’ compared with feature films or animated films? Is there a clear difference between fiction and non-fiction?
2) What was the primary purpose of this film and do you think the intended audience of the film might have shaped the way in which the story is told?
3) How might films play a role in revolutions, not just representing them but actually affecting or even changing their trajectories?
Athar al-Farasha (Trace of the Butterfly)
Dir. Amal Ramsis (15)
Documentary/Drama/Egypt/2014/Arabic with English subtitles/67min
It is 9 October 2011 and security forces have brutally attacked a demonstration of Coptic Christians with army trucks, resulting in 27 deaths. Mina Danial, one of the victims, becomes an icon of the revolution, not only for Egypt’s Coptic minority, but for all revolutionaries. For many demonstrators, Danial was seen as the Che Guevara of the Egyptian revolution: their great hope for the future.
For his sister Mary, Mina’s death meant not only the end of a life, but also the start of something new. Covering a two-year period, Mary Danial is accompanied by the director on a journey through Egypt’s revolution, documenting periods full of frustration and triumph, more death and loss, and the desperate grief for the victims who somehow are still present amongst their loved ones.
Some questions to consider:
1) Is it significant that this story is being told from the perspective of a female character i.e. Mina’s sister? And if so, how?
2) How do you think ideas of martyrdom help people cope with the loss of their loved ones in times of political struggle and physical oppression?
3) How important was Mina’s Christian identity in this story of the Egyptian revolution?
The Egyptian cinema industry has been and continues to be the largest in the Arab world until the present day. Cinema in Egypt started in the early part of the twentieth century, during the era of British colonial rule. Egypt was the only Arab country which was able to develop a “national” film industry during this period. Films are considered to be one of the most popular form of entertainment in Egypt, and Egyptian films are widely shown throughout the Arab world. Egypt has produced some internationally renowned filmmakers, such as Youssef Chahine and Salah Abu Seif.
The Golden Age of Egyptian cinema is generally considered to be the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Egyptian filmmakers have produced all genres of film, including social realism, melodrama, comedy, thriller, musical, romance, adventure and documentary. In addition to entertaining Egyptians, Egyptian cinema has also played an important role in imagining the nation and national identity in a context of social and political change and increasing globalization and Western cultural encroachment.
Today, cinema companies are privately owned but all films must be approved by the censorship authorities in order to be shown in Egypt. As a result, many critically acclaimed films by Egyptian and Arab filmmakers have been banned in Egypt because they were highly critical of the ruling regime. Since 2011, censorship has become more restrictive, particularly in relation to films that deal with the topic of the military or directly address political issues. Consequently, some filmmakers choose to address social issues, including issues concerning gender relations, which are of deep concern to many Egyptians. Other major challenges facing young filmmakers include the lack of funding for making films.
Egyptian films are increasingly being shown in international film festivals and there is an emerging generation of filmmakers (both women and men) who are taking new directions in cinematic production. In recent years, more films have been made by female documentary filmmakers, which perhaps is a revolution in and of itself.
* The Egyptians: A Radical Story, by Jack Shenker, published by Allen Lane, 2016.
This book, written by a former Guardian correspondent, uncovers the roots of the 2011 uprising and highlights the ongoing struggles by youth, workers, women and cultural producers to resist authoritarianism and economic exclusion.
* The City Always Wins, by Omar Robert Hamilton, published by Faber & Faber, 2017.
In this debut novel, Hamilton tells the story of the Egyptian revolution beautifully and powerfully through the lives of young activists, Mariam and Khalil. Described as ‘one of the defining novels of the Arab Spring’ by the Wall Street Journal.
* Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution, by Don “Stone” Karl and Basma Hamdy, published by From Here to Fame, 2014.
This is a documentation of the first three years of the Egyptian revolution through its street art. The beautiful images are contextualised through essays written by artists, experts and activists.
* Revolution For Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring, by Bassem Youssef, published by Dey Street Books, 2017.
In this book, Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef, who has been dubbed the ‘Jon Stewart’ of the Arab world, recounts his rise to fame with the outbreak of the revolution, and his fall from grace, following the military’s take over in 2013.
* Women, Culture and the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution, edited by Dalia Mostafa, published by Routledge, 2017.
This collection of essays by Egyptian and international experts explores the intersections of gender, culture and revolution, with a focus on women cultural producers and the gendered dimensions of resistance.
* Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation, by Viola Shafik, published by American University in Cairo Press, 2007.
This is one of the most comprehensive studies of Egyptian cinema from its emergence in the 1930s onwards. It explores themes of Egyptian identity, gender and class in different genres of film and against the back-drop of the country’s socio-political developments.
* To find out more about ‘Politics and Popular Culture in Egypt: Contested Narratives of the 25 January 2011 Revolution and its Aftermath’, go to:
Four highly acclaimed films portray different perspectives on the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath. Q & A sessions with some of the Egyptian directors and panel discussions with experts from the universities of Manchester, Warwick, Reading and LSE will provide context and explain the significance of the films.
Fri 12 October
Ishtibak (‘Clash’) + Post-Screen Discussion with Dr Nicola Pratt (University of Warwick)
Moug (‘Waves’) + Q&A with director and Dr Dalia Mostafa (University of Manchester)
Saturday 13 October
Al Midan (‘The Square’) + Post-Screen Discussion with Dr Dina Rezk (University of Reading)
Athar al-Farasha (‘Trace of the Butterfly’) + Q&A with director and Dr Sara Salem (London School of Economics)
Recalling Revolution: Egyptian Film, Representation and Resistance
Panel discussion exploring the challenges facing Egyptian filmmakers and other cultural producers in representing the Egyptian revolution and the significance of film and popular culture more broadly in resisting Egypt’s increasing authoritarianism. It will also consider the future prospects for independent cinema and challenges facing a younger generation of filmmakers.
With Amal Ramsis, Ahmed Nour, Dalia Mostafa, Nicola Pratt, Dina Rezk and Sara Salem.