Reflections Inspired by “The Square”

The Square

My ID card will tell you that I’m a 24-year-old Egyptian single male. It will also tell you explicitly that I’m Christian, which, by government standards, means I was born to Christian parents. I am not a political activist, nor am I a politician or a writer. In fact, that very same ID card of mine will tell you that I’m an engineer, by education if not by trade.

The fact that I’m writing this should tell you that I’m literate, and the fact that it’s in English means I’m at least bilingual. I’ve had the blessing of a privileged upbringing and – by many standards – a good education in Egypt (aka a private education). I’ve even had the pleasure of traveling around the world and living in different countries. I was in Belfast during the 18 days leading up to Hosni Mubarak leaving power in Egypt in 2011; and I was in London when the army attacked protesters in Maspero, killing Mina Daniel. I’m saying this simply to clarify that I claim no part of the great feat of being in Tahrir. I only went there (to participate in protests, etc.) a handful of times over the past three years; in fact, I’m outside Egypt once again, writing this from New York.

By writing this, I’m not trying to be self-glorifying or self-deprecating, even though I may seem to be one or the other at times. I may even seem like I’m trying to state a specific leaning or opinion; believe me, I’m not, I’m not even 100% sure I have one right now. What I’m trying to do is put the questions and thoughts I have into some coherent form, mostly for my own sanity, but maybe even to get some people thinking with me along the way.

Last night, I had the great experience of watching The Square (@TheSquareFilm), a film by Jehane Noujaim about the last two and a half years of our lives as Egyptians. Watching the most intense two and a half years of my life fast-forwarded in 90 minutes was a very tough yet very enlightening experience.

The one thought I couldn’t shake for about the first third of the movie, no matter how hard I tried, was whether we (the people who wanted Mubarak to step down) had made a mistake… Yes, I know this is a shocking thought, but hear me out. As I said, I had a privileged upbringing. Whether Mubarak stepped down or not, at the end of the day I was guaranteed a good job, a safe home, and – barring some political and social taboos – relative freedom in what I do and say in Cairo. That, however, was not true for many others who went out in Tahrir. Unlike most people out on the streets, I believed in the call for “bread, freedom, and social justice” while I had a pretty ample amount of all three. This is the thought that scares me the most, and why I was wondering (yes, was; I’ll explain) if we’d made a mistake: Were the privileged few who wholeheartedly wanted change giving false hope to the unprivileged many who needed it? Were we being idealistic, all the while unintentionally raising the hopes of masses of people for whom the call for “bread” was literal and the demand for “social justice” could mean life or death for their families?

Photo from

As the story (and my and my country’s histories) progressed before me on screen, however, something began to shift. For some reason, I had (very mistakenly) thought that Egypt’s poor would want the “bread” and “social justice” more than the “freedom.” I (also very mistakenly) thought that, while the rich had the luxury to demand ideals, the poor wanted practical solutions to everyday problems. I think this misconception was due to an elitism that I’ve been confronted with quite often ever since January 2011. A bigger factor, though, is that I wasn’t in Tahrir from the start.

What I saw in The Square (and what many before me saw alive in Tahrir) was how Egypt’s poor, who had (and still have) a lot more to lose than its elite, weren’t just out on the street to cheapen the price of bread. They weren’t just there so that the police would stop harassing them to meet their daily arrest quotas. Many, victims of a stunted educational system and harsh living conditions, knew that the solutions to their day-to-day problems would only come with an established foundation Egypt has been lacking for many years. Although the unity of Christians and Muslims in Tahrir was quite heavily publicized (and that was a great moment, don’t get me wrong), what still gets to me and literally makes me burst in tears of joy as it did last night is seeing the unity of Egypt’s different classes. The image I had (quite condescendingly, I hate to admit) of one class with ideology leading another with practical needs couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

This is where I stop talking about “privileged and well-educated.” This is where I stop talking about “poor and subjected to a malfunctioning educational system.” This is where I realize these differences, although not gone yet in Egypt, although still as stark as ever, disappeared in “the square.” This isn’t an attempt at my part to be poetic, far from it. This is an admission of my failure to see that the people, all kinds of people, HAD spoken. It’s also an admission of my greater failure in thinking some people were on the streets for their daily bread and would be mollified by it. Along with many things, the past two and a half years have been pounding into my head that calling for freedom isn’t a privilege and calling for bread isn’t a need. I keep realizing over and over again that one can’t happen without the other, and I keep finding out I’m late in the game realizing that. People in Tahrir in 2011 knew that. People calling for a free and representative constitution for Egypt today know that. I also keep seeing how the past two and a half years (and however long this journey we’re all on takes) are much less selfless for so many people than my “privileged upbringing” had led me to believe.

As cliché as this will sound, we’re in this for the long haul, we’re in this together, and we’re in this for each other. Questions arise on the methods, the roads to the end game, but the end game hasn’t changed. The cry was, and still is, for bread, freedom, and social justice. I made the mistake of thinking some needed or wanted one in favor of the others, but I admit I was wrong, and I’m glad to see I’m one of very few who thought so.