There are some amazing scenes collected in the Frontline documentary “Egypt In Crisis,” which focuses on the aftermath of the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak from power—the June 2012 election that ended with Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom And Justice Party, becoming the country’s first democratically elected leader, and the military coup that replaced him a little more than a year later. In October 2011, eight months after Mubarak left office, Christians took to the streets outside the offices of the state-run TV station to protest the government’s failure to protect the religious minority.
Describing what happened next, Heba Morayef, of Human Rights Watch, says it was “a traumatic event for Christian minorities, for Christians in Egypt. It was the first time the military had used excessive force in that way.” It’s one thing to hear it, but her words are accompanied by ground-level footage of tanks tearing through the streets, plowing into (and plowing under) people, which greatly enhances the viewer’s appreciation of just how it might feel when the very forces that are supposed to be defending and protecting you and your fellow citizens decide instead to park a first cousin to a monster truck on your spine.
“Egypt In Crisis” is something of a sequel to “The Brothers,” a segment that the reporter Charles M. Sennott worked on for the 2011 Frontline episode “Revolution In Cairo.” Sennott opens this film by noting that “Two and a half years ago, I came to Egypt and witnessed what we thought was a revolution.” Those words, rueful and sad, set a tone of mournful confusion. So do Sennott’s efforts to check in on Mohammed Abbas, a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood with whom he spoke back when the country first started coming apart. He’s seen in interview footage from 2011, and then, nine months later, he’s one of the candidates running for a seat in the post-Mubarak parliament.
He doesn’t make it in, though, and the next time Sennott encounters him, he’s just another Egyptian trying to figure out exactly what the hell has happened. These scenes, and the reference to the fate of a protest singer Sennott also filmed back in 2011, just feel like padding, a distraction. Sennott must have hoped they’d add a human dimension to the story he has to tell. But the story is so sprawling and so complicated that he doesn’t have the time to spare, and he doesn’t need to use his screen time this way. If those tanks rolling over people in the street, or the close-up of a little boy crying over his mother in the wake of another bloody assault on street protestors after the coup, don’t give the viewer a sense of what’s humanly at stake, nothing will.
Given how little time Sennott and his team have and the density of the ground they need to cover, “Egypt In Crisis” is basically the Cliff’s Notes version of recent Egyptian history—a useful thing to have access to, but a little short of juice. Sennott’s having been here before pays off its strongest onscreen dividends when he digs up his old interview with Morsi and shows that, a few months before he was a presidential candidate, he was a party spokesman explaining the principled and well-thought-out reasons that his party won’t be fielding a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, “We are saying,” he says way back when, “that it’s more important for us to prepare the society. Freedom, democracy, and justice are required now, not just thinking about who controls who.” Maybe when he and the other big wheels in the Freedom And Justice Party heard that sound bite played back, it hit them that two of the things most “required now” were already in the name of their freaking party, and this made them feel obligated to step up. In the end, Morsi—whose campaign nickname, according to Time reporter Ashraf Khalil, was “the spare tire”—won, in a squeaker.
It helps to understand how the honeymoon could have ended so fast when you hear the guy he narrowly beat described as “the military junta candidate,” backed by the army and the police. The number one concern of the supporters of the revolution was to reduce the power of the military and make them more accountable. Morsi’s 52-per-cent of the vote must have included a hefty portion of the “anyone but the other guy” constituency, yet once he was in office, Morsi, in the time-honored tradition of political hacks who got very lucky, behaved as if he’d won in a landslide and had a tremendous mandate, attempting to cloak himself in dictatorial powers and indulging in all the things that made non-theists wary of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate in the first place. The journalist Ashrad Khalil gets off the rant of the evening: “There were a lot of doors that were opened to potentially scary places. The sections of the Constitution that were about women’s rights stressed equality, but then they felt the need to insert language that, you know, women are equal and have equal rights to work, so long as if doesn’t contradict their duties at home. Little obnoxious things like that.”
Sennott uses the term “the deep state” to refer to those elements of the government that Mubarak had put in place that remained devoted to doing business the way they always had. (And the Egyptian army really is a business, he says, controlling “as much as 40 percent of the economy.”) If the Egyptian revolution of a couple of years ago now looks like a failed revolution, or like no revolution at all, it may be because the people toppled a figurehead but left the structure he’d built to support him still in place, partly because they mistakenly thought they’d joined forces with the very institutions most devoted to keeping that structure in place. Once the people turned against Morsi, he seemed prepared to become a dictator himself, until the military, assessing his personal weakness and extraordinarily high level of unpopularity, decided they could more easily run the show without even pretending to need a puppet. (Morsi is now being held on charges of treason of inciting violence.) That, at least, is this episode’s breakdown of recent events, and it’s a thumbnail sketch of an epic story yet to be told. But at least now, when some documentary filmmaker tells it on the scale it deserves, we’ll be better prepared for just how incredibly depressing it’ll be.