The Egyptian strongman Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was recently in Moscow visiting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Putin reportedly offered el-Sissi $2 billion in arms — just what a country like Egypt, where half the women can’t read, needs. The whole meeting struck me as so 1960s, so Nasser meets Khrushchev — two strongmen bucking each other up in the age of strong people and superempowered individuals. Rather than discuss arms sales, el-Sissi and Putin should have watched a movie together.
Specifically, el-Sissi should have brought a copy of “The Square” — the first Egyptian film ever nominated for an Oscar. It’s up this year. El-Sissi has a copy. Or, to be more precise, his film censor’s office does. For the past few months, the Egyptian authorities have been weighing whether to let the film — an inspiring and gripping documentary that follows six activists from the earliest days of the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by el-Sissi in 2013 — to be shown in Egypt.
Meanwhile, pirated and downloaded copies of the film, which is also on Netflix, have spread virally across Egypt and been viewed by many Egyptians in homes and coffee shops and discussed on social media. What’s more, it was recently dubbed into Ukrainian and downloaded (some 300,000 times) by protesters there and shown in Kiev. A dubbed version is now spreading in Russia, too.
The film resonates with those who gathered in squares from Cairo to Caracas to Kiev, added the film’s producer, Karim Amer, because it captures an increasingly universal phenomenon: average people uniting and deciding “that the Pharaoh, the strongman, won’t protect us” and the religious sheikh “won’t cleanse us.” It has long been said, added Amer, that “history is written by the victors. Not anymore.” Now versions can come from anywhere and anyone. Power is shifting “from the pyramid to the square” — from strongmen to strong people — “and that is a big shift.”
And that’s why Putin and el-Sissi need to see the film. It captures some of the most important shifts happening today, starting with fact that in today’s hyperconnected world, wealth is getting concentrated at the top, but, at the same time, power is getting distributed at the bottom and transparency is being injected everywhere. No palace will remain hidden by high walls.
Another reason Putin, el-Sissi and all their protesters need to see “The Square” is that it doesn’t have a happy ending — for anyone, not yet. Why?
The Egyptian protesters got sidelined by the army, because while they all wanted to oust the Pharaoh, they couldn’t agree on a broader reform agenda and translate that into a governing majority. But Putin and el-Sissi will also lose if they don’t change, because there is no stable progress without inclusive politics and economics.
So the protesters are long on idealism but short on a shared political action plan. El-Sissi and Putin are long on stability but short on a politics of inclusion tied to a blueprint for modernity (and not just rising oil prices). Unless they each overcome their deficiencies, their countries will fail to fulfill their potential — and all their “squares” will be stages for conflict, not launching pads for renewal.
Thomas Friedman writes for the New York Times.