Skip to main content

How America abandoned Egypt's Arab Spring

By Cynthia Schneider
January 26, 2014 -- Updated 1357 GMT (2157 HKT)
Thousands of Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square during a rally marking the anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising on Saturday, January 25. A spate of deadly bombings put Egyptian police on edge as supporters and opponents of the military-installed government take part in rival rallies for the anniversary. Thousands of Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square during a rally marking the anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising on Saturday, January 25. A spate of deadly bombings put Egyptian police on edge as supporters and opponents of the military-installed government take part in rival rallies for the anniversary.
HIDE CAPTION
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
Egyptians mark anniversary of Arab Spring uprising
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Square" is filmmaker Jehane Noujaim's documentary about Egypt's revolutionaries
  • It's told through the eyes of three revolutionaries who meet in during the first protests
  • This is the Egypt the Obama administration has forgotten, says Cynthia Schneider
  • Schneider: Film should be a painful reminder to the U.S. of the military regime it backs

Editor's note: Cynthia Schneider is a professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University, dean at the School of Diplomacy at Dubrovnik International University and a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is also a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.

(CNN) -- Egyptian voters this month ratified a new constitution that enshrines the military, police and intelligence in positions of unprecedented power. Filmgoers elsewhere could watch "The Square," Jehane Noujaim's documentary about resilient revolutionaries -- youth, intellectuals and Muslim Brotherhood -- fighting for dignity, social justice, economic empowerment and freedom.

Which is the true Egypt? Both, but the second has been ignored by the Obama administration and much of the media.

In Washington as in Egypt, there are two narratives: 1) The army has brought back stability, and the revolution is over; 2) Egyptians have banished fear, if not the regime, and many who led and joined the revolution continue to fight for the same aspirations, while soberly acknowledging the challenges ahead.

Cynthia P. Schneider
Cynthia P. Schneider
Is Egypt better now than 3 years ago?
Deadly bombs push Egypt to crisis's edge
Egypt FM: We must stabilise law and order

The second narrative comes to life in "The Square," the Oscar-nominated documentary that tracks Egypt's uprisings from the inspiring 18 days that began three years ago on January 25, when protesters crossed Tahrir Square, to the crackdown on the Brotherhood camps last August. (Full disclosure: I donated $90 to the Kickstarter campaign that supported the film, and I know director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer personally.)

Through the eyes of three revolutionaries who meet in Tahrir Square during the first protests in 2011-- Ahmed Hassan, a young street vendor who emerges as a charismatic leader in Tahrir; Khalid Abdalla, a third-generation activist and actor (star of "The Kite Runner," and founder of the post-revolution media collective Mosireen); and Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- we see the events of the last three years unfold in fits and starts of optimism, betrayal, and disappointment.

This is the Egypt that the Obama administration has forgotten. This is the Egypt that took Washington by surprise three years ago. True, the initial promise of those utopian 18 days when the country overcame economic and ethnic barriers to find common cause, has not been redeemed. No surprise. After decades of U.S.- backed authoritarian rule, Egyptians have no reliable independent institutions, only the ability to take to the streets in protest. And now the new military-backed constitution takes that away.

Ahmed, Khalid, Magdy, and their compatriots in "The Square" -- such as Ramy, who is brutally beaten by the security forces for the crime of leading Tahrir in song -- demonstrate that this Egypt is resilient. They may not have learned to organize political parties and to take power in three years, a failing that left first the Brotherhood and then the military to fill that vacuum, but they also are not abandoning the struggle for their rights.

Egyptian activists behind bars on uprising's anniversary

Given the film's portrayal of the military's repeated attacks on protesters, beginning in March 2011, it is difficult to understand the infatuation with Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the army, a sentiment that extends to liberals such as author Alaa al-Aswany. Recently returned from Cairo, "The Square" producer Karim Amer said in a talkback session, "People are beginning to wake up and recognize what the regime is doing to divide Egyptians."

In a tragic postscript to the film, Magdy Ashour currently is confined to his home -- a common fate for Brotherhood members -- unable to work for fear of arrest under the military's condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. This is ironic, since Magdy sided with the revolutionaries against Egypt's deposed president, Mohammed Morsy. The current Egyptian regime's policy of outlawing a movement with millions of Egyptian supporters, one that supplied essential social services to the poor, cannot end well.

And where is the United States? As usual, it has no impact. Having consistently abandoned those fighting for the goals of the revolution, the U.S. has steadily weakened its position of influence.

Now the U.S. speaks to the military to no avail. While Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dials el-Sisi to discourage growing repression, gaining nothing from their conversations, the U.S. is vilified in the Egyptian media.

"The Square" should be a painful reminder for the White House, Congress, and State Department of the nature of the military regime the U.S. continues to back,

Egyptians, who already know this well enough, do not have the opportunity to see the film: It languishes in the state censorship authority. And no wonder. The military-backed regime surely does not want Egyptians to see the juxtaposition of army leaders promising "not to harm a single Egyptian" with the brutal beatings inflicted on protesters.

The Oscars have done what the White House has failed to do: Recognize the ongoing narrative of Egypt's revolution.

Now the Egyptian authorities must allow their countrymen to see their own history. There are encouraging signs that the Oscar nomination has prompted them to review the film's status. The Jumbotrons screening "The Square" in the Square cannot come a moment too soon.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cynthia Schneider.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT