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 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT