Khalid Abdalla: the movie star revolutionary

Khalid Abdalla stands in front of a painting of the Arabic word for "Resist" in Cairo. Photograph: David Degner David Degner/David Degner

Khalid Abdalla stands in front of a painting of the Arabic word for “Resist” in Cairo. Photograph: David Degner David Degner/David Degner

The British-born actor found success in United 93 and The Kite Runner, but has spent much of the last three years camped out in Tahrir Square

At 33, he doesn’t have a filmography so much as a geographical guide to the 21st century’s flashpoints. It goes like this: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt. Or to put it in cinematic terms, United 93The Kite RunnerGreen Zone and In the Last Days of the City and The Square.
The first three films were major productions that seemed to place Abdalla on a Hollywood trajectory towards if not exactly stardom, then a certain kind of respected international status. But an actor only interprets the world. For Abdalla the point was to change it. In 2008 he went to Cairo to make In the Last Days of the City, a low-budget independent film, and ended up becoming a dedicated activist in the revolution that, three years on, finds Egypt under military control.
Abdalla is an unlikely revolutionary. A privately educated Cambridge graduate, he is faultlessly polite and deeply thoughtful, given to long and textured analyses of everything from dramaturgy to nation-building. With a high hairline and a square jaw, his looks are finely balanced between cinematic character actor and theatrical leading man. From either perspective, his near-black eyes provide a penetrating directness to an otherwise self-contained manner. As befits someone who feels equally at home in London and Cairo, his English accent is that of the educated middle class but he also speaks Arabic like a native Egyptian.
Last month I met him outside a small cafe in a beautifully dilapidated cul-de-sac a few minutes’ walk from Tahrir Square. Cairo was in a subdued but tense state, with the army maintaining a conspicuous presence on the streets. I walked out of my hotel one morning to be met by three tanks and about 50 armed soldiers. There was a curfew still in operation and Tahrir Square was blocked off with barbed wire and protected by soldiers at sentry points. Within its vast space several tanks sat as further discouragement to assembly. They were also reminders of the square’s symbolic importance. Whoever controls it is seen as having the upper hand in the struggle for power.
All revolutions require their focal point, for psychological as well as strategic reasons. The Bastille and the Winter Palace were never quite as significant as they have become in the mythologies of the French and Russian revolutions, but they possess an instrumental aura because in the chaos of social upheaval, a shared sense of a time and space is vital. Dates and places become emotionally charged and therefore politically useful.
The various revolts and rebellions that can be filed under the heading Arab Spring have produced only one location that has entered the global lexicon of popular resistance. Egypt may have come slightly late to the party, beaten to the streets by Tunisia, Algeria and Yemen, but it made up for lost time with a genuine revolutionary space. Although it’s traditionally been the scene of protests, Tahrir (which means “Liberation”) Square was largely unheard of outside the Arab world until 2011. Since then it’s become one of those names, like Tiananmen Square, that form part of history’s shorthand.

Abdalla estimates that altogether he’s spent about six months of the last three years living in Tahrir Square. His experience and that of several other protesters is recorded in The Square, an extraordinary documentary that won the Audience Award for best world cinema documentary at the Sundance film festival and has been tipped for an Oscar. Directed by Jehane Noujaim, it offers a visceral sense of what a revolution looks like on the inside – all chaos, fear, adrenaline and urgency – while tracing the events that have convulsed Egyptian society since 2011.
Time called it “a remarkable portrait of Egypt’s false dawns”. Not only is Abdalla one of the main protagonists, he also helped with the film-making, and his wife was one of the camerawomen. Yet when the protests in Tahrir Square first hit the international news on 25 January 2011, Abdalla had finished his work in Cairo and was living back in London, writing a script. “The following day on the front cover of the Guardian,” he recalls, “was the actress who played my ex-girlfriend in the film I’d just finished shooting. She was on the ground with her hand in the air facing a line of police.”
Suddenly he felt a need to show solidarity with his friends in Egypt. He sat up all night talking to his girlfriend (now wife) Cressida Trew about what to do. By morning he had decided he had to go.
Trew remembers the drama of that period: “Khalid was going as an Egyptian, but what I felt really profoundly was that he was going as his father’s son and as his grandfather’s grandson.” Both his father and grandfather were outspoken critics of Egyptian state tyranny. “I know it sounds melodramatic but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see him again.”

Two days later, on 28 January, Abdalla was on Qasr el-Nil bridge in Cairo, part of a large crowd trying to force its way into Tahrir Square against repeated attacks from the soldiers blocking the way. In the battle a man next to him was killed – a disturbing scene that can be seen in a short YouTube film Abdalla put together.
The conflict raged all day with the crowd being forced back across the bridge, only to regroup and try again. Eventually, come sunset, the sheer weight of numbers carried them across to the other side.
“The story of that day is a very good metaphor for everything that followed,” he says. “I will never forget that when I got to the other side, I promised myself that no matter what, I wouldn’t be pushed back on to the bridge again. I ended up in a very dangerous position shortly after because of the extraordinary live fire that was shot at us as we entered the square for the first time. We had police closing in on us from both sides, and the only solution was to climb over the wall of the old foreign ministry, and as I did so, another man was shot next to me. Eventually we re-entered the square that night, and it became ours until we toppled Mubarak. If you like, over time, the structure of that story has repeated itself, time and again, but over much longer stretches of time.”
It’s still not known how many protesters died that Friday night, on what became known as the Day of Rage, but Trew hadn’t been melodramatic. Death was very definitely a real possibility. From here on, Abdalla was engaged in the most challenging role he had ever played. And while a camera captured much of what was to follow, there was no script and no rehearsal, and the soldiers, the police, the bloodshed and the killings were far from make-believe. The revolution had begun in earnest and he was now a revolutionary.
The situation Abdalla encountered in Cairo was as galvanisingly simple as it was paralysingly complex. Hosni Mubarak had been in dictatorial control of the country since 1981, following his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s assassination. Mubarak’s regime was sclerotic, corrupt and deeply unpopular. In the tide of revolt sweeping the Arab world, he was an obvious target for overthrowing.
But one consequence of his authoritarian rule was the absence of any organised opposition other than the Muslim Brotherhood, the transnational Islamist movement founded in Egypt in 1928. The victims of fierce repression, the Brotherhood had survived decades of government crackdowns by operating in secret and creating a tremendous spirit of loyalty among its members. It was disciplined and determined to seize power.
However, the crowds Abdalla joined when he arrived in Tahrir Square were not dominated by Brotherhood supporters. The opposition to Mubarak ran across society. Although the Islamists played a part, the loudest voices were those of the disillusioned urban middle class, liberals, secularists and labour unions.
Had the protests been organised by the Brotherhood, there’s little doubt that Mubarak and the military would have been even more ruthless in response. As it was, after first combating the protesters, the military eventually stepped back and on 11 February, it was announced that Mubarak had stepped down. There were wild celebrations in Tahrir Square, where Abdalla had remained throughout. Interviewed by the BBC, the jubilant actor asked why for 30 years Britain and the west had supported Mubarak, knowing that he was a “grotesque dictator”.
“It’s absolutely not a Muslim revolution,” he told viewers. “It’s nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalists… It’s about the will of the people, ruling their own country.”
Less than 18 months later the Brotherhood was in control. If it was not a Muslim revolution, it had resulted in an avowedly Muslim government. But if anything, that only increased Abdalla’s revolutionary fervour.
Abdalla talks with Mosireen video activists Aalam Wassef, left, and Danya Nadar, right. Photograph: David Degner David Degner/David Degner

Abdalla talks with Mosireen video activists Aalam Wassef, left, and Danya Nadar, right. Photograph: David Degner David Degner/David Degner

Abdalla was born in Glasgow, where he lived until his family moved to Harrow when he was four. Both his parents are doctors. His father, Hossam, was a leading student activist in the 1970s and was imprisoned five times during Sadat’s rule. Forced out of Egypt, he moved to Iraq before settling in Britain in 1979. A well-respected fertility specialist, he heads the Lister Fertility Clinic and has remained an active supporter of political reform in Egypt.
Hossam’s father, Ibrahim Saad El-Din was an economist who was imprisoned twice during Nasser’s rule, yet was made director of the Institute of Socialist Studies during Nasser’s socialist phase. He was also imprisoned under Sadat and, although he died in 2008, he remains a much-admired figure in Egyptian leftist politics.
Given this background it was always going to be difficult for Abdalla to disappear into the English middle-class life for which his education appeared to prepare him. It was at the independent King’s College school in Wimbledon, that he discovered acting.
“Like a lot of immigrant kids I was better at the sciences than the arts for a period of time,” he says. “It’s much easier for your parents to help you at home with maths and science than Henry VIII. When I was 15 my English teacher came up to me and said he was doing this play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and he thought I’d be good in it. I told him he was completely mad.”
But he got the part. “I remember entering on stage and suddenly it was this absolutely beautiful world where the rules were completely different.”
Abdalla has a tendency to speak in sentences with multiple subclauses when discussing politics, but when he talks of acting, his language becomes simpler, if no less romantic. After King’s College school, he read English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he met his wife.
“I initially thought he was one of the lecturers,” she recalls. “He looked so much older and self-possessed and intense. The thought that went through my mind was, ‘That’s an extremely attractive man but it would never work with us because he needs to take himself much less seriously.'”
Despite her misgivings, she was impressed by his confidence, particularly when he set up his own theatre company with his friend and star-in-the-making Rebecca Hall. He directed her in a celebrated college production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It was not long after 9/11 and Abdalla made posters to promote the show and transliterated some into Arabic. At the time all things Middle Eastern were deemed suspect and Abdalla was keen to challenge that assumption. “And bear in mind,” he adds, “there is this sort of cold war with Martha and George, so there was a kind of relevance to it.”
The terror attacks of 11 September had a lasting impact on him, because they raised questions about identity and allegiance that he had no choice but to address. “It’s framed my life since then. I have this multiple, transnational identity, and I guess I was slightly slow on the uptake as to how much more defined 9/11 made those lines. For me, two great tragedies took place. The first and greater of which was the killing of 3,000 people. But then there is also 19 hijackers killing 3,000 people in the name of 1.2 billion people around the world with Bin Laden as their figurehead!”
All of which made him reluctant to take the role of Ziad Jarrah, the jihadi pilot in United 93. Not long out of Cambridge, with ambitions firmly set on the theatre, Abdalla was in two minds about auditioning for the film, only doing so because of his respect for its director, Paul Greengrass. Although he voiced his reservations to Greengrass, he was offered the part. Abdalla suspects Greengrass wanted him because he, like Jarrah, was a reluctant participant – Jarrah had attempted to pull out of the attacks and, even on the day, delayed hijacking the plane.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted Khalid,” says Greengrass. “But what I loved about the meeting with him was that he had powerful, principled views and he’s a highly intellectually able person.”
They spoke about The Battle of Algiers, a film to which they returned in conversation many times. Greengrass sees the revolutionary spirit of that film’s director, Gillo Pontecorvo, in The Square, which he describes as “a very personal film that captures what a revolution feels like”.
In United 93, Abdalla gave an astonishing performance as Jarrah, at once subtle and potent. He was intent on “according him the respect he never gave anyone else, in humanising him rather than turning him into a flat statistical identity, and through that opening up the process of breaking the taboos”.
Of the esteem in which he holds Abdalla, Greengrass says: “I’m not given to hyperbole. I just think he doesn’t get the recognition for his outstanding gifts. I think he’s one of the finest actors of his generation.”
Whether or not he’s gained the recognition he deserves, Abdalla has certainly not chosen to cash in on his early breakthrough into cinema. Aside from the two films – United 93 and Green Zone – in which Greengrass has cast him, Abdalla’s only other major film so far is The Kite Runner. His performances in all three films are marked by a mixture of intelligence and intensity, a combination that doesn’t stop when he’s off screen. And you sense he’s unwilling to drop beneath that level either in his career or in conversation. As his motto on his Twitter page has it: “Won’t do anything I don’t believe in.”
He spoke several times to Greengrass about unfolding events in Egypt in the lead-up to returning. “He felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime historical situation and as an educated, committed son of Egyptian parents, he wanted to be there,” says the director. “I think it was like a calling, a moment of personal commitment.”
In the days after Mubarak’s fall, there was a palpable sense that the ogre had been slain and the open road of democracy and freedom lay ahead. The reality was that an authoritarian regime was still in control and they soon began attacking and torturing demonstrators. What’s more, because there was widespread public support for the military’s removal of Mubarak, few Egyptians were interested in stories of brutality and abuse.
Abdalla responded to the apathy by setting up Mosireen, a film collective with the aim of documenting the revolution.
“Mosireen started on 25 February, two weeks after Mubarak was pushed out,” Abdalla says. “There was a call to reoccupy the square and a very small number of people went. The whole country was saying, ‘Time to go home, let the big boys deal with it.’ On that night we were violently removed. A lot of people were tortured in the Egyptian museum.”
The collective has played a crucial part in providing an accurate picture of the violence wrought by the state, with its YouTube channel providing a much-needed counterbalance to the propaganda put out by the authorities and their apologists. Abdalla also held screenings for protesters in the square of the footage that Mosireen had gathered, which he called Cinema Tahrir. In The Square, during a Skype conversation, his father questions the political point of all the screenings. “What are you going to do, start a TV station?”
One observer told me that Mosireen was an exclusive hang-out for Cairo’s wealthy and well-connected revolutionaries. Abdalla disputes the charge: “We’re certainly not wealthy – middle class perhaps, but no more or less so than any other organisation, NGO or the various journalists and human rights workers in Egypt. It’s a misplaced judgment because the work itself is street-based and fighting for social justice on all levels.”
In any case it hasn’t stopped Mosireen’s events from drawing heated attention from the police and military. I asked Abdalla if he thought his status as an international actor afforded him protection from the authorities.
“I’m recognised by people who have seen The Kite Runner, but I’m not famous. There’s a knowledge that if the authorities did something to me, it would kick up a storm – but you can’t bank on that. There is also a class protection, which comes into things as well. Although we’ve always expected it, they’ve never come and shut down Mosireen. On the other hand there have been people who work at Mosireen who have been shot and gone to hospital.”

Abdalla (right) with director Paul Greengrass (left) on the set of United 93. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex Moviestore Collection/Rex/Moviestore Collection/Rex

Having joined Abdalla in Egypt, Trew met director Jehane Noujaim, who asked her to help film The Square. Although she made a rule not to film in situations of violent protest, Trew, along with Abdalla, has been arrested and had her equipment confiscated. When I ask him if he worries about Trew’s safety, Abdalla pays tribute to his wife’s bravery.
Trew herself says: “One of the things I’ve learnt is that people have very different reactions to dangerous circumstances. Some respond by believing nothing is going to be fine. I’m one of them. I was utterly terrified. And some believe for absolutely no good reason that everything will be fine – that’s Khalid”.
Certainly he and his fellow revolutionaries have consistently made themselves prime targets by the premium they have placed on street protests, particularly in Tahrir Square. In the early days of the uprising, it was the only political option available, and as a consequence there was great unity among the protesters.
“There is no such thing as Muslim or Christian,” says Ahmed, an idealistic secularist, at the beginning of The Square. “We are all present.”
“Soon people will realise that they misunderstood the Muslim Brotherhood,” adds his friend Magdy, a member of the Brotherhood. Eventually Ahmed and Magdy find themselves on opposing sides. When protesters reclaimed the square in the summer of 2011, the Brotherhood turned out a few times in a stage-managed show of their power, and then withdrew. They only wanted to use their presence in Tahrir Square as leverage in the secret negotiations they were having with the military.
Then in October of that year, there was a peaceful protest at Maspero, the location of the state TV company, by Coptic Christians who objected to the closure and destruction of churches. Armoured vehicles raced into the crowd, crushing 28 people to death. The public response was at best muted, at worst indifferent. There was indeed such things as Christian and Muslim.
Abdalla says the massacre was his lowest point in the last three years. In The Square we see him interviewed and he says that if what happened at Maspero doesn’t provoke outrage then “as a revolution we’re in trouble”.
“But the lowest points are when you keep walking,” he tells me. “That’s when change happens and things get defined.”
The big change that ended up happening was that the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party won both the prime ministerial and presidential elections, with Mohamed Morsi sworn in as Egypt’s first ever legitimately elected president on 30 June 2012. As there was no constitution in place, Morsi was able to draft one that, as Abdalla puts it, would have “created a state in the Brotherhood’s image”.
Many Egyptians hoped that the FJP would follow a similar path to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-light government in Turkey, which has brought fast economic growth and gradual democratic reform. But things didn’t work out that way. Morsi was increasingly seen as a dictator-in-waiting, attaining powers for himself that went beyond even those that Mubarak had held. The economy continued to falter, attacks on Christians increased, and he made a series of clumsy moves that further undermined public confidence. Perhaps the most egregious of these was appointing a member of the hardline Islamist group Gamaa Islamiya as mayor of Luxor, the city in which terrorists linked to the group shot dead 58 tourists in 1997.
Not long afterwards, following mass protests, Morsi’s government was removed by the military on 3 July this year. It was a move that had the widespread support of the Egyptian people, who had only a year earlier voted for Morsi, but it left many observers wondering about Egypt’s commitment to the democratic process. Abdalla is aware of the criticism.
“There is this line that goes, ‘You guys had a revolution, you wanted a democracy, you had democratic elections and you got a president and you didn’t like him. That’s pretty normal for most of us around the world. You should accept it and let the term go through.'”
He says he doesn’t care who leads the country as long as they allow an independent judiciary and unions and a free press and the other key rights and protections. But he has no regrets about Morsi’s passing. He just wishes that the mass protests had been allowed to unseat Morsi without the intervention of the military.
“It’s this idea of the saviour coming to sort out our problems,” he says. “For me that’s just creating your own demagogues and dictators. The millions out on the streets were capable of pushing the Brotherhood out themselves, which would have been much more legitimate.”
I point out that the Brotherhood would hardly have walked quietly away. What he is talking about, I say, is the kind of large-scale street conflict that, as we know from Syria, could easily degenerate into a civil war. He agrees that such an outcome was a real possibility. As it was, of course, the military committed a massacre against Brotherhood supporters protesting against the imprisonment of Morsi and many senior Brotherhood leaders. On 14 August, 638 people were killed when Egyptian security forces set about clearing two protest camps in Cairo.
If anything, it could be argued that the situation is now worse than before 2011, because the Brotherhood could turn its back on democratic politics in the understandable belief that it has led to nothing but its persecution. Egypt may well be plunged into the terrorism that scarred the country in the 1990s or into an even more devastating schism. And, moreover, unlike in Mubarak’s time, there is now overwhelming popular support for the military. Abdalla acknowledges all of this and yet he insists: “I’m deeply optimistic, although I recognise this moment as a very dark one.”
He believes that, while the people are willing to accept any solution that provides them with stability, the key question, beyond any discussion of rights and freedoms, is economic performance. And as he doesn’t believe the status quo is capable of improving the lot of the average Egyptian, sooner or later the people will voice their disapproval once more.
But what then? Back to Tahrir Square? More protests, more massacres, and the further intervention of the military? How was the revolution going to develop if its only means of political organisation was mass protest? This was a question I kept returning to in our conversations, and each time Abdalla’s answers seemed to spiral off into nebulous idealism.
 Abdalla with his wife, Cressida Trew, at a screening in New York in 2010. Photograph: Mehdi Taamallah/ABACA USA/Empics Entertainment

Abdalla with his wife, Cressida Trew, at a screening in New York in 2010. Photograph: Mehdi Taamallah/ABACA USA/Empics Entertainment

Notwithstanding the danger and the bloodshed, you can see in The Square the exhilarating appeal of revolutionary protest and the fabulous street drama of solidarity and empowerment. Abdalla speaks of the unprecedented political engagement he’s witnessed, of staying up all night in passionate debate of political ideals that no one really mentions at any hour in Britain. Yet the life-affirming spectacle of the barricades is a blunt political instrument. And Egyptians are beginning to weary of protests.
Abdalla argues that while there may be a temporary lull, the people are now armed with knowledge that they have the means to bring down governments. This may be true, but the Brotherhood supporters may feel the same way, and they are now armed with a whole renewed martyrdom mythology.
“For me,” he replies, “the success of the revolution will be the exit from the binary”, by which he means the choice between the military and the Brotherhood. But it is in the Brotherhood that he finds inspiration for the closest he comes to outlining a means of getting from the streets to that exit.
“I think the greatest success of the Brotherhood over its history and particularly for the last 30 years is how they have managed to challenge the culture of this country and this region without holding a single office of political power. And I think part of our challenge is to do the same, reversing a lot of their work and also providing our own vision. The ground for that is very fertile.”
The months and years ahead will present Egyptians with many difficult decisions and choices. Abdalla seems to be resolved to play his part in that process, but at the same time he must also grapple with his own dilemmas. In a long and carefully detailed email he sent me after our interview, he explained that he didn’t believe that he had put his acting career on hold, noting that there were three feature films currently in post-production in which he had leading parts. One was an animation film with Jeremy Irons, the other two Arab films, including In the Last Days of the City, to which he is ardently committed.
“You can’t talk of Arab cinema,” he writes, “without a relationship with Arab politics. Eventually it comes down to the same thing. You could say that it is the actor in me that picks up a camera to expose state violence in Egypt, just as much as you could say it is the political activist in me that agrees to do a film that participates in shifting people’s perception of wars waged in the region I’m from. Each terrain demands a different participation, of course, but they are two sides of the same coin.”
Examining both sides of that coin, it looks as though the prediction in his childhood obituary has come true: he does indeed have important political work to do.
For more information about The Square visit
 This article was amended on 4 November 2013 to insert an additional quotation from Khalid Abdalla