For a few, it was what they did to the opera. The Muslim Brotherhood unceremoniously fired the director of the Cairo Opera House. Singers went on strike. Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” was cancelled. For others, it was the Islamist campaign to ban ballet, or the arrest warrant issued for a popular TV comedian.
Last week, for a whole host of reasons, Egyptians massed once again in Tahrir Square to send their Muslim Brotherhood government packing.
Was it a good thing? The jury is still out. On the one hand, Egyptians deserve their opera, their ballet, their secular rights. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections. The military’s decision to dump the party angers millions of voters who will never see an opera in their lives.
Jehane Noujaim, a former classmate of mine who spent the last two years filming protesters in Tahrir Square, can attest to just how complicated the story has become.
She has a knack for putting herself in history’s path. Her first movie, “Startup.com,’’ was completed just as the dot-com bubble burst. Then she finished “Control Room,’’ about media coverage of the Iraq war, just as the occupation imploded.
She started working on her latest film, “The Square,’’ just before the fall of Hosni Mubarak. She’s completing it now, as Egypt takes an unexpected turn.
Her attempt to chronicle the revolution has been as unpredictable as the movement itself. When she first arrived in Cairo, her native city, she was detained at the airport because she had filmed protesters years earlier. Eventually, she got to Tahrir.
“It was magical,” she recalled in an interview over Skype this weekend. Rich, poor. Christian, Muslim. Men, women — all dreaming about the future.
Her team captured the fireworks and cheers after Mubarak stepped down; joyous people straddled the barrels of tanks, waving flags.
But this revolution is not like a dot-com boom or a war. It has no leader, no structure, no plan.
The army asked the protesters to go home. But the die-hards refused. They continued their demonstration — this time against military rule.
Jehane’s team filmed bullets flying, tanks running over protesters, and welts and burns on singer Ramy Essam, who strummed his guitar to revolutionary words after he was tortured by the army.
Then the army struck a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political movement: free and fair elections. The Brotherhood shunned Tahrir Square and started campaigning. But the die-hards didn’t shift to politics. They kept protesting. Not surprisingly, the Brotherhood won.
Some people saw its victory as the fruits of the revolution. Others weren’t satisfied. They rallied again — this time against the Brotherhood-backed constitution, which didn’t offer enough protections for women, Christians, secular views.
“All the politicians are failures,” Ahmed Hassan, a charismatic protester, declared in the footage. “The revolutionaries are the hope of Egypt. If one day they fall silent or stop fighting, Egypt will be lost.”
Protesters clashed at least four times with the Brotherhood during the past year. In one scene in the rough cut of the film, Essam predicted that bringing down the Brotherhood’s fledgling government “will be easier than the old regime.”
Even so, Jehane didn’t expect President Mohamed Morsi to be ousted.
“We heard that Morsi was going to announce a coalition government,” she told me. “But he didn’t. He went completely off script and gave a defiant and incendiary speech.”
Protests swelled. Morsi refused to share power. The army deposed him so quickly that one wonders whether it hasn’t been pulling the strings all along. Once again, there were fireworks, cheers, tanks welcomed by protesters. And once again, violence erupted.
In recent days, Jehane’s team watched a Brotherhood march turn into a deadly gun battle. One of the film’s characters, a Brotherhood member who spent countless days in Tahrir Square, now finds himself at odds with his previous friends.
Will Morsi’s ouster be remembered as the day the revolution was saved? Or the day it splintered into a thousand warring pieces? For Jehane’s crew, and her characters, everything is in flux. There is a telling moment in the footage, as the protesters discuss what went wrong.
“We revolutionaries have a problem,” Essam said. “Most of the time, we say no. But we offer no alternatives.”
Watch the rough cut of the film, and you will root for the protesters. Then you will wonder if their protest will ever end. Egypt’s future hinges on whether these young idealists can put a president into office, not just kick one out. The revolution, like the film, is still a work in progress. How will it end? I’m waiting on the edge of my seat to find out.