From Tahrir to Madison, the Revolution Is Unfinished
Instead of watching Governor Scott Walker give his State of the State address, I turned the channel to HBO where the new documentary “In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution” premiered.
A stellar crew of independent filmmakers produced this amazing film: Jon Alpert, Matthew O’Neill, and Jacquie Soohen.
They followed Democracy Now correspondent and independent journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous as he returned home to Cairo to see the revolution unfold. The action centers on the massive peaceful demonstrations that rocked Tahrir Square last January and February, as hundreds of thousands, and then a million people demanded that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak step down.
The footage is breathtaking. The first shots include archival footage that show the viciousness of the Mubarak regime, allowing us viewers to understand why people wanted change so badly.
Then they take us into the labyrinth of poor neighborhoods, so we see how corrupt Mubarak was, too. In coffee shops over tea and water pipes, and in alleys piled high with garbage, person after person voiced their anger at the regime.
Kouddous is our guide and we watch as the crowds grow larger—peacefully—everyday in Tahrir. When Mubarak sends in his hired thugs to wreak havoc, we are in the thick of rock fights and charging camels. We see how the regime fixes creepy green lasers on protesters’ backs to target them at night. Kouddous take us into the apartment to meet the family of someone who lost a family member in the violence. The bravery of the Egyptian people is matched by the bravery of these American and Canadian filmmakers.
The tension builds as, seventeen days into the uprising, Mubarak gives a speech; everyone was expecting him to resign, but he doesn’t. “He’s an artist,” a young English-speaking man tells Kouddous. “How he provokes people.” Afterward, the men in Tahrir stand up with shoes in their hands, the ultimate insult in the Middle East (more powerful than flipping the bird).
The next day, one million people filled Tahrir Square. I remember seeing the photo in The New York Times but the live footage is so visceral.
One million people finally convinced the regime that its time was up. We see the elation among people when they learn that Mubarak was stepping down. It is such a sweet victory, and it’s delightful to watch the crowd sing “Farewell, Farewell, Farewell, you thief.”
And yet already in that celebration we see the potential cracks in the movement. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood chant, “God by Himself toppled the regime.” Kouddous asks one protester if he had a message for Americans. He says that human rights groups provided help, and “Those who stand for justice and freedom—you are with us today.”
At the end of the movie, Kouddous translates the phrase of the day: “Lift your head high, we’re proud to be Egyptians.”
It was this same sense of dignity that inspired people here in Wisconsin to rise up against their governor, Scott Walker, after he squashed collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Wisconsinites took inspiration from the Tahrir. People made homemade signs that said, “Welcome to Cairo,” “This Is Our Tahrir Square,” “Walker Is the Mubarak of the Midwest,” and “Treat Us Like Egyptians.”
Kouddous came to Madison during the height of the protests. He had just gotten back from Cairo and being in Wisconsin, with is snow and cold, accelerated the culture shock. As we walked around the capitol square, I asked him what he thought about the comparisons Wisconsinites were making to Egypt. Was Tahrir like this? There were huge differences culturally, he said, but some things were similar—the vibrancy, the energy, the creativity.
Of course, there are many differences between Mubarak and Walker, between Egypt and Wisconsin. For one, we elected Walker. No one in Egypt enjoyed that right. While the Walker administration can be tough, there has been no violence in our massive uprising. When police arrest people here in Madison, they get released soon afterward. No woman has to face a “virginity test” while in custody.
Plus, it’s going to take more than street protests to get Walker out of office. One million protesters unseated a dictator. Will one million signatures unseat a Republican?
Part of the thrill of the HBO documentary is knowing how it concludes; we know Mubarak is going to fall. But we don’t know how the recall election is going to end. Recent polls reveal a high level of support for Walker, especially among independents. Walker beats all of the top Democratic contenders, including David Obey.
While Kouddous was in Madison, he hesitated to call what happened in Egypt a revolution. He preferred “uprising,” since it was unclear if a revolution would succeed. The title of his documentary reflects that uncertainty. Nevertheless, the film is thrilling and shows the power of nonviolence. It’s not to be missed.
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