The Egyptian malaise

Filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton confronts post-revolution pessimism in Cairo

Omar Hamilton

I am walking up the stairs of the Yacoubian Building. Alaa al-Aswany wrote about it in his 2002 novel of the same name, about an Egypt marred by failed revolutions, spreading Islamism and rot. Today there is a bawab (doorman) in the hallway staring at news about a string of arrests that’s meant to have just happened somewhere.

On the balcony at the top of the stairs, British-Egyptian filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton is talking seven storeys above the Egyptian street – that mystical, real-life force which has toppled two presidents in about as many years – as it plays out on Shara Talaat Harb below. Young guys are selling T-shirts and suits and hashish. I can see the man who asked me suspiciously if I was Syrian before giving me directions. Men crouch down in front of posters of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Gamal Abdel Nasser laid out on the pavement. A police riot van passes into view on a nearby street.

The Interior Ministry's objective is the security of the regime, not the security of the citizen

Omar works as part of Mosireen, an activist/media collective whose name plays off Masriyeen (Egyptian) and moserren (determined). He also produces shorts and films, like Though I Know The River Is Dry (2013) and last year’s The People Demand the Fall of the Regime. The son of Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Souief and British critic Ian Hamilton, Omar jumped on a plane from Washington DC to join the revolution after January 28th's Day of Rage, when the uprising took hold.

Mosireen began documenting the revolution with photography and video, and giving people training and equipment to do the same. It is still documenting the revolution now. But problems after June 30 (fascism, media manipulation and the depressive malaise which has crept around Cairo), has made that task far more difficult. Mosireen has not been at full capacity.

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Protesters torch a police riot truck during November 19 clashes Omar Robert Hamilton

“We’ve had a problem,” Omar admits. “We found ourselves in this period where we didn’t really know what to do.” Many artists and activists have been lost amid Egypt’s endless binary of Muslim Brotherhood versus army, state versus terrorism.

“We were against both sides and weren’t able to do the work we would normally do,” he explains. “Normally we’d have been out filming. But in the past people would be out filming because it was something they believed in. You’d be driven by conviction. So if it was dangerous, it didn’t really matter so much. But this time nobody wanted to get shot for either side in the kind of street war that was happening.”

“It was about genuinely not wanting to put yourself in the line of fire for something that you didn’t believe in.”

Instead they put out a video one month ago, The security of the regime, essentially a short history of the Egyptian security state since the revolution. Mosireen used statements by spokesmen and ministers now to frame post-Morsi Egypt in its proper context: patriarchy, repression and co-option. “The Interior Ministry's objective is the security of the regime, not the security of the citizen.” Part of the same revolution.

“I guess my conception of the revolution is much more a question of progress in the right direction and of chipping away at the state now,” Omar explains. “That seems to be where it is now.” How? “Chipping away at the credibility of the state, chipping away at its ability to behave the only way it knows how – violently and suppressively.”

Omar went down to Tahrir for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s July 26 demonstrations, when the latter called on the people to mandate him to “confront violence and terrorism” (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood). Omar took pictures of crowds cheering the army next to anti-SCAF graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where around 40 protesters were killed by security forces in 2011. Helicopters paraded the skies and fighter jets painted love hearts in the sky, the colours of the Egyptian flag. Omar left. He later tweeted:

He mentions depression a number of times when we speak. “You can’t discount how strong an impact or how effective depression can be…like genuinely being lost, not knowing how to re-organize and genuinely not knowing how the revolution’s going to carry on. Because there were times when it was so, so dark.”

 “Sometimes it’s better not to say anything until you know what to say.” And yet in Egypt, silence tends to get filled. The thoughtful pauses Omar dwells on allow car horns, sirens and shouting below to crescendo.

It is becoming difficult to get heard again. Last week the Revolutionary Socialists and April 6 Movement – both January 25 veterans – held a protest outside the high court for Ahmed Abu Deraa and Haitham Mohamadeen, a Revolutionary Socialist activist detained by the army and charged with “membership of a secret organization.” The demo was moved when men armed with Sisi posters swamped the crowd chanting “The army and the people are one hand!” Army soldiers on nearby APCs mouthed along to the words under helmets too big for their heads.

Then it was all about building something new, it was about this real sense of having a chance to create an entirely new reality

Activists are having to deal with this new reality. Omar talks about the chances of holding street screenings in Egypt now – something that once allowed Mosireen to reach out beyond the Internet and its “very specific…middle-class” audience – showing films about the army, criticizing them. “A screening would not last today,” he says. That is a euphemism. The idea seems absurd now.

Security has attacked the creative process like it has attacked workers, Islamists and activists. It is a far cry from January 25. “Then it was all about building something new, it was about this real sense of having a chance to create an entirely new reality. Now that chance, that reality or the possibility of that reality has been destroyed – or it feels like that.”

“Things will happen again,” ‘Omar says plainly. “But that moment of euphoric production is long gone, obviously.”

It’s better to be involved in an endless and possibly unwinnable struggle than to work for an advertising company in London

Now Mosireen is about to release two new videos this week, one directly addressing that Egyptian malaise. “It’s basically going to take the form of text on a black screen, somehow just trying to explain why things were so difficult… and also kind of apologizing for not finding a way of doing better,” Omar tells me.

They are planning a report from Qursaya, the rural island the army tried to clear in November, killing 20-year-old fisherman Mohamed Abdel Mawgoud, one of the great Egyptian citizens the army is supposedly custom-built to protect. There’s a history of January 25 to June 30 on the way. “[But] it’s difficult to work on something like that, that isn’t going to be ready in a couple of days. You feel like you’re removing yourself from the struggle somehow.”

The struggle still exists. Omar wonders if people have any other choice. “Because people have such strong convictions and because the 18 days were so miraculous and because things are so shit now.”

“And because…you know…it’s better to be involved in an endless and possibly unwinnable struggle than to work for an advertising company in London.”

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