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Z: The story of a corrupt regime

The brutality of the police and the complicity of political forces in Egypt find parallels in international cinema through the 1969 film Z directed by Costa-Gavras

Wael Eskandar, Saturday 26 Nov 2011
Z
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A man boarded a train and fired his pistol at Coptic Christians in Egypt, killing one and injuring five others, and then fled the scene. He was a policeman.

Days before, the bombing of the church in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city on New Year’s Eve has been linked directly to the then Minister of Interior and his police force.

In 2010, a young man by the name of Khaled Said was beaten to death by policemen in plain view.

Not much has changed since Egypt's January 25 Revolution.

The recent events on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where tens have been killed and thousands injured, along with the attack on protesters in front of the Cabinet building that resulted in one death today, 26 November 2011 are indicative that we’re left with a brutal police force and complicit political powers.

Egyptians have been baffled by the involvement of police in numerous crimes. It is so inconceivable that a policeman would betray not just its duties, but an entire nation so systematically. So much so that some Egyptians are in denial; but this is not the first time police brutality exists, as brilliantly documented for us on screen by Costa-Gavras.

Z, by Greek director Costa-Gavras was released in 1969 and tells the story of a corrupt regime. The plot is a thin fictionalisation of the murder of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. Although based on Greece’s experience of the transformation to a military junta, the movie is very telling of Egypt.

It is sometimes difficult to discard the absurd notion that Costa-Gavras travelled into the future to see events unfold in Egypt and then back in time to boldly make a movie about what he witnessed.

The parallels can be found in the details of the scenes and the brilliant dialogue. Throughout the film, Egyptians can identify with every aspect of a corrupt regime: the media, the police, the people, the attorney general and even the military junta that steps in save the corrupt regime from collapsing. Even the usual rhetoric of accusing protesters of disrupting the peace and the false sense of pride in a fake democracy can be found in the movie.

 

(Spoiler Alert: The following gives a way the plot and the final paragraph gives away the ending, readers are encouraged to watch Z before continuing to read this article)

 

The plot

A rally is to be held in the evening by the senator in a country and district not identified in the movie.

The police, after making it clear that they are vehemently opposed to any ideology, claim that since the country is democratic they will allow the proposed meeting to take place. The police apply pressure on the owner of the hall that was to be rented out and, indeed, all other alternatives such that the senator has no choice but to hold the rally in a hall with very limited seating capacity.

Chaos reigns as hired thugs disrupt the rally and the police idly stand by and the senator is clubbed. He is rushed to hospital. A judge is appointed to investigate the incident.

At first the police seem incompetent, but as we delve into the story we understand that the police are not only passive, but complicit. The accident is upgraded to murder charges. As the plot thickens we discover that the police are not just complicit, but the main perpetrators. The murder becomes an assassination.

The more witnesses appear, the more they are pressured and battered. The judge is pressured by the National Attorney General to stand down, but the judge refuses.

Right before the very end of Z we see a triumph of justice over evil and complicit police. The police chief and his aides are put to trial alongside the murderers. The reporter who covered the story and helped expose them got promoted to anchor.

 

Policemen and thugs

In the very first scene we have a script that reflects with accuracy the attitude of Egyptian police towards citizens: “An ideological illness is like mildew,” says the Greek police chief. 

That is the heart of Z. Instability caused by ideas that go against the status quo must be exterminated.

However, the rally, says the police chief, must not be stopped because they (speaking of themselves) are democratic - much like Egypt’s democracy. In both cases, the government’s idea of democracy is to employ all indirect measures to prevent anyone else from speaking their mind. In Z, the police’s entire focus was to prevent the rally from taking place. This pressure is all too like state security forces in Egypt.

As the scenes unfold, we recognise the same features. Even the streets look closely similar to Egypt, not least because the movie was shot in Algiers.

In numerous scenes peaceful protests are attacked by ‘thugs’ armed with clubs and weapons in a manner similar to Egypt.

When some men attack the rally with clubs the police stand by idly - as if there are no thugs - expressing complicity with the thugs and never moving a finger to stop the attacks. One could well be describing the Egyptian police in that scene, but Costa-Gavras captured it well before we had a chance to witness it.

The police chief is much like the corrupt and brutal Minister of Interior, Habib El-Adly. The surrounding forces in the country are much like the regime, complicit in every way; selfish beyond description.

 

The media

The day after the clashes break out, the media adopts a tone condemning the rally organisers and blaming them for the violence that ensued. They also commended the police on their role; falsely reporting that 13 police officers were injured.

The newspaper report, as read out loud in the film, was all too similar of the misinformation continuously being spread by various media platforms controlled by the Egyptian state.

 

The People

One of the first witnesses that attempts to testify against the senator’s murderers is held back by his sister and his mother, who want no trouble. They do not mind that a murderer should walk free for the sake of their own well-being. They fight against the truth with vehemence alongside the tyrannical police, who beat and intimidate the witness.

This story line brings to mind the divide between Egyptian people. Some Egyptians have been quick to forgive abuses by security personnel, whether it be army or police, and urge others not to pursue any form of justice.

The witness is not a political figure, but a football fan that is very intent on testifying. He was beaten on his way to testify, threatened and harassed by the police but remained adamant.

This witness reminds us of how even depoliticised Egyptians came out; adamant to speak out against injustice and put an end to it no matter the cost, while others were continuously entreating them  not to.

 

Attorney General

The judge called in to investigate is perhaps the purest character in the movie. At first he seems unsure and easy to push around. He had no ideological agenda; he had no interest in anything but justice. Perhaps this character is missing entirely from the Egyptian regime, but he can be seen as a symbol for a people who are truly pursuing justice, such as activists or revolutionaries.

The judge follows the evidence, which promptly leads him to realise the “accident” was an assassination attempt instigated by none other than the police.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, he is still pressured by the National Attorney General to ignore his findings. The regime attempts to brainwash the judge, who is asked to ignore the actions of policemen, to think of the greater good, the country, stability etc etc etc. He is told that policemen ought to receive only administrative punishment; otherwise people’s trust in the government will collapse. He is finally left to make the decision and answer to his conscience.

Once again, the corruption, not just of Egyptian police, but of the judiciary comes to mind. Certainly those in the prosecutor’s office, as well as judges, experience lots of pressure, because they risk being pushed out of their appointed position and losing standing in their career. Police and Egyptian regime members remain untouched, despite numerous charges filed against them.

 

The end and military junta

In most cases one would be hesitant about giving away the plot and the ending, and indeed, in this situation, it would be giving away the ending, not just of the movie but of the Egyptian revolution. However, since the movie was released in 1969, and because Egyptians have a right to know where their revolution might go, an exception can be made.

The part just before the end, where justice triumphs, is very reminiscent of 11 February, when Mubarak stepped down. It was a time where most Egyptians felt that justice was possible.

 But the very end of Z is what we are living today.

 “After the trial, the Leftists seemed certain to win the elections. Prior to the elections, the army seized power and dismissed the judge,” says the anchorman.

In less than three minutes, we see the true end.

The police are reprimanded, the killers get light sentences, the witnesses die in “accidents,” the other senators and participants are killed, incarcerated or exiled and the judge is dismissed.

The military junta takes over and continues its revenge, banning any ‘ism’, ideologies, books, movies, free press and anything that will resemble a move towards freedom. We are presented, finally, with the beginning of the absurdity that ensued with the Greek military junta rule from 1967 to 1974.

Egypt is living the final scenes the movie Z.

Activists and revolutionaries were under the suspicion during the 18 days of the revolution that brought down the regime

After the fall of Mubarak, they thought this day would never come, but now it has. The detention of Alaa Abd El Fattah, prominent Egyptian blogger along with the clampdown on freedoms and the targeting of media personalities bears great semblance to the ending of Z.

The regime seeks to avenge its humiliation and fight tooth and nail to hold onto their corrupt way of life.

However, the movie is called Z, which means ‘he lives’ in Greek: referring to the assassinated senator.

Despite the censorship even of the letter Z, the resistance lives on.

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