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Oscar-Nominated 'The Square' Distorts the Sad Reality for Democratic Movements

Ahmed Tarana/AFP/Getty Images

"Let me tell you how this whole story began. Egypt was living without dignity. Injustice existed everywhere.” So says Egyptian activist Ahmed Hassan at the outset of The Square, the Netflix documentary. The Square refers, of course, to Tahrir. The beginning Ahmed refers to is early in 2011. “I went to the street. I found everyone around me felt just as I did.” Three years ago this February 11, after 18 days of protests, Hosni Mubarak fell. “Tahrir Square changed Egypt completely,” Ahmed says. “It moved the whole world. For the first time in our lives, we couldn’t be silenced. We reclaimed our freedom. And we dreamed that one day all of Egypt would be like Tahrir Square.” He adds in English, beaming, “Revolution!”

These scenes in Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated film move and jar. You’re reminded of the idealism—and its twin, naïveté—of those joyous crowds in Tahrir. And you know what comes next: sectarian violence, political chaos, a spell of Islamist rule, and, last July, a military coup and repression. The new Mubarak, General Abdel Fattah al Sisi, last week gave himself the title of Field Marshall to match the early Pinochet sunglasses. 

Egypt wasn’t the first and won’t be the last democracy failure. Roughly half the countries that tried democracy since the 1960s have “reversed,” to use a term from political science—that is, they have turned back to authoritarianism for at least a year. But Egypt’s recent coup was a damning and seemingly final verdict on the Arab Spring. In the inter-war years, Cairo had freewheeling politics, and Tahrir suggested this past was somewhere in its DNA. The “liberal era” ultimately ended on July 23, 1952 when the Free Officers, led by Colonel Gamal Adel Nasser, deposed the monarchy and ushered in military-backed rule. It's now destined to live on for a good while longer.

The outcome in Egypt has also darkened Western perceptions of the possibility for political evolution in authoritarian states everywhere. After all, the trend lines are bad. Every January, Freedom House publishes a “Freedom in the World” report that tracks democratic progress. For the eighth consecutive year, more countries (54) saw declines in political rights and civil liberties than gains (40). As Iran's stillborn “Twitter revolution” of 2009 showed, the Internet age will not necessarily set the world free.

It's normal to be down about all this. It's something else to make the leap to fatalism—that some places aren't ready for democracy and that's that. Sometimes, reminders are needed why writing millions of people off is a betrayal of Western values and interests, and these days the reminder comes from Eastern Europe.

Watching the Tahrir crowds sway to folk-rock bands singing “Freedom, Freedom,” my mind wondered to another “Maidan”—Maidan Nezalezhnosty, or Independence Square, in Kiev. (The Ukrainian word for square comes from Arabic.) Right now, thousands are camped out, demanding dignity and freedom from a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime, albeit one that was freely elected. I heard from a protest leader in Kiev that, “We want all of Ukraine to be like the Maidan,” echoing the scene-stealing Hassan of The Square.

Since December, a transparent, decent, and democratic mini-state has claimed a few blocks of Ukraine’s capital. Here’s what an ugly post-Soviet duckling might grow into, says Kiev’s Maidan. Donations of food and medicine poured in. Volunteers worked shifts. The mood was festive until last month, when the first lives were lost in clashes with police. President Viktor Yanukovych has dug in, raising the chances of civil conflict. Are the Ukrainians doomed too? The strong men of the post-Soviet Slavifundias had already extinguished, for the moment, democracy movements in Russia and Belarus. Vladimir Putin is propping up Yanukovych. These men consider the people of all Maidans bydlo—roughly translated: cattle, bought and mindless. But Kiev’s Maidan movement has stayed resilient through this cold winter and the outcome in Ukraine is impossible to predict. 

This is an opening for the West, yet there’s little appetite for it. The Obama Administration’s aversion to "democracy promotion" began as an aversion to George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," which, it's rarely mentioned, was abandoned about a year into the second term. As a consequence, the U.S. lacked the political stomach to see through the Arab Spring: Libya was abandoned by us to its militias after Gadhafi's death; Syria's anti-Assad rebels got little help from us and turned to the Gulf Arabs and radicalized; and in Egypt Washington was never able to shape events, although this was the hardest case given the anti-Americanism on all sides.

The U.S. has also been late to wake up to the challenge in Ukraine, at first leaving Western policy toward that pivotal nation of 46 million to hapless eurocrats in Brussels. Washington and the EU are now at least talking seriously about offering carrots to counter Putin and his $15 billion in aid to Yanukovych—in fact, not a high price to pay to determine where modern Europe's geopolitical dividing lines end up. Targeted sanctions on the Yanukovych “family,” the country’s newest billion-dollar business-political enterprise, and other regime insiders are a possibly effective stick, if the Americans and the EU ever move from vague threats to action. Neither has brought the same commitment to the battle over Ukraine—or the dirty tricks (see this week’s leak of salty American and EU diplomatic phone conversations, doubtless courtesy of the old KGB)–as Putin’s Russia.

Mass protests are barely a first tentative step to democracy. After the Orange Revolution of 2004, Ukraine wasted a chance to build the foundations of democracy. It wasn't the demonstrator's fault but the politicians’. Then as now, the Maidan is testament at least to a maturing society and a civic consciousness. Toppling an authoritarian order requires breaking up the racket that sustains it: business elites, civil servants, and security services who depend on the strongman for their safety and welfare. Hard but not impossible. Otherwise, Wenceslas Square in Prague wouldn’t be a successful revolutionary symbol.

Easy now to claim Egypt wasn’t “ready” for democracy. If so—if it was too backward, Arab, Islamic, and illiterate—then how do you explain Tunisia? The birthplace of the Arab Spring got a liberal constitution last week and Islamists and secularists ended a long-running political standoff through peaceful compromise. The difference in Tunisia: After the dictator was gone, Tunisia chose to try to reach national consensus on democracy. It stumbled along the way and may again, but the constitutional agreement is a historic breakthrough. 

Yes, but Tunisia’s military isn’t as greedy or political as Egypt’s. Yes, but Tunisia’s Islamists were enlightened and moderated in decades of exile in London and Egypt’s Muslim Brothers weren’t. Yes, but Tunisians are Arab Frenchmen. (Not true but you hear it all the same.)

The yes-buts excuse only so much. You could have had a “round table” in Egypt to bring together all the different political forces. You could have tried to come up with a timetable and an inclusive, orderly process to work out the rules of free politics at any time between February 2011 and in the weeks after the coup. It was entirely up to the generals, who took over from Mubarak, to make that possible. They never did. Liberal democracy wasn't their end goal. Continued dominance was. So here we are.

The Square gives a distorted picture of the political dynamic. The heroes are the masses who turned out in Tahrir in 2011 and again last spring against the Muslim Brotherhood. The film’s villains are Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist who won 2012 first free presidential election. Morsi was inept, heavy handed and unpopular, but he was no second Pharaoh. He had little control over the courts and police, and none over the military. The reins of the state had stayed with the generals. For me, the most memorable scene in the film features a bit player, a young military officer. Sometime after Mubarak’s fall, he scoffs, “We didn’t protect the revolution. We made it happen. You kids don’t know anything.” The “second revolution” of 2013 was manipulated by the military, which took the country past the point of no return to the hopes of 2011. 

Egypt’s story is the tragedy of choice, to use Michael Hanna’s phrase. Green shoots that appeared in Tahrir in 2011 were trampled. Egypt is again stuck with a menu limited to secular or religious authoritarianism. Add to that disenchantment with political pluralism, extreme nationalism, the anger of the bloodied Muslim Brotherhood and the surge of terror attacks throughout Egypt. As Khalil Hawi, the late Lebanese poet, wrote at a dark moment for his country in 1979: “There is nothing over the horizon,/ save for the smoke of black embers” (Translation Fouad Ajami’s). Egypt deserved a different ending. 

Matthew Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.