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10 years after the Arab Spring, democracy remains elusive in Egypt

Ten years ago on Thursday, longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed. The Egyptian revolution was the high point of what became known as the Arab Spring, a movement that spread across the Middle East bringing with it the possibility of democracy. But for many Egyptians and much of the region, the intervening decade, has not been kind. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ten years ago today, longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed. The Egyptian revolution was the high point of what became known as the Arab Spring, the idea of democracy spreading across the Middle East.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, for many Egyptians and much of the region, the intervening decade has seen winter instead.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Where there was fearless and victorious revolt, where there was jubilant hope….

  • Mohammad Jamal:

    People are celebrating the love for the country and wanting to change and wanting to become a better country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … today, there is failure and fear.

  • Mona Seif:

    For the first time in my life, I actually want to be out of Egypt.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ten years ago, Mona Seif and millions of Egyptians rewrote history in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, liberated from the dictator they deposed, liberated, they hope, from the oppressive regime he led and the corruption and poverty it bred.

    Egypt was the Arab Spring's zenith. The momentum began in Tunisia, and toppled dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Today, Tunisia has a dysfunctional, but durable democracy. But Libya and Yemen are mired in civil war. And Egypt, where the taste of spring was perhaps most sweet, the Arab winter is most bitter.

  • Mona Seif:

    We were defeated. We tried to overthrow Mubarak's regime and deconstruct the machine that is Mubarak's machine, state security, police, military, all of this, and we failed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That was not Mona Seif's message five years ago, when we last met.

  • Mona Seif:

    In every area, once people realize their lives and the future of their sons is at stake, they start mobilizing. And we have to be there and enable that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Back then, she was carrying on with the family business, campaigning for justice by documenting Egypt's 40,000 political prisoners, including her brother Al Asad Air Base, imprisoned for being a symbol of the revolution, and her sister Sanaa, imprisoned for demonstrating when few were willing.

    Mona also was a prisoner. At one point, she and Alaa appeared together in court.

    Has anyone in the family ever questioned whether your work was worth it?

  • Mona Seif:

    Questioning whether it is worth it? I don't think so. I think it's always, always very obvious that it's worth it and that it needs to be done.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Back then, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had been president for two-and-a-half years, since overthrowing Muslim Brotherhood leader and elected President Mohammed Morsi in a 2013 coup. Sisi's regime massacred Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and it reenergized the machine of oppression.

    Today, there are even more political prisoners, at least 60,000, including, once again, Alaa, who's in worse conditions, and has been tortured in prison, And Sanaa, arrested last summer when the Seifs were outside Alla's prison, and has since been charged with inciting terrorism.

  • Mona Seif:

    The current regime is intent on squashing any kind of remaining voices. And our family is one of the few remaining voices.

    And so, for the first time, 2020, I started thinking, OK, I want out. I want my siblings out. I want them to be out and safe. And then I think I want out and to see how can I resume a semi-normal life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Does that mean you have lost hope for the future of Egypt?

  • Mona Seif:

    I no longer function on hope.

  • Osamah Khalil:

    What Egypt has learned is that you can start an uprising, but turning an uprising into a revolution is very difficult.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Osamah Khalil is a professor of history at Syracuse University. He says Egypt's and the region's protesters failed to overthrow repressive security structures. But the problems that sparked protests, persist.

  • Osamah Khalil:

    I think it's tempting to think about the Arab Spring as a failure. But I think the reality is that it's really still under way.

    Many of those same issues that brought the protest to a head and the challenging of those — of the different Arab governments still exist.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Middle East has some of the world's highest youth unemployment. There is still corruption and the stifling of political participation.

    That helped lead to what some scholars called Arab Spring 2.0. From 2019 to 2020, protesters filled streets and deposed leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, and, multiple times, Tunisia.

    But the Arab Spring also birthed brutality and barbarity, the grinding war in Syria, the spread of ISIS, and the largest movement of refugees since World War II.

  • Tarek Masoud:

    The example of Syria, in addition to being a tremendous humanitarian catastrophe, it has an additional catastrophic effect. It's a winning argument in the hands of authoritarians who want to forestall any appeals for democratic change.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tarek Masoud is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School. He worries that war and chaos delay democracy by teaching dictators to destroy dissent and reducing people's appetite for unrest.

    But populations often only stay silent if the autocrats fulfill promises of security and prosperity, which are absent.

  • Tarek Masoud:

    Public patience with the kind of regime that Egypt has right now only extends so far as that government is able to produce material improvement in people's lives.

    And so, if it's COVID-19 or if it's something else that causes Egyptians to feel that the current bargain isn't working, we could absolutely see a return of some of the sentiments that prefigured January 25, 2011.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, President Biden may have to choose how much support to provide future protesters. In January 2011, Vice President Biden chose the status quo.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things that he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region. I would not refer to him as a dictator.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Khalil hopes Biden has changed.

  • Osamah Khalil:

    Are we going to rely on the traditional status quo reliance on these authoritarian leaders to maintain American interests in the region? My hope is that Biden will look at American ideas and values.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Masoud is more skeptical.

  • Tarek Masoud:

    The average Arab's diagnosis of U.S. involvement has to be that everything the United States has touched in the region since 2011 and probably well before has turned to ashes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Which means that collective demand for self-determination 10 years ago, is still up to the people. That dream remains. But, for now, it's a dream deferred.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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