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
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT