Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
03 June 2021

What is the legacy of Egypt’s Arab Spring, 10 years on?

In a new episode of our podcast Democracy in Question?, Michael Wahid Hanna shares his first-hand experience and analysis of the uprisings that shaped a region.

10 years ago, anti-government protests in Tunisia sparked a wave of spontaneous uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Spring was met with repression by governments in the region, but ultimately led to the ousting of rulers such as Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. But the hope that these changes would usher a new era of democracy in the region has been belied.

In this new episode of Democracy in Question?, hosted by Shalini Randeria, Michael Wahid Hanna, Senior fellow at The Century Foundation, helps us understand the turbulent events of 2010 in Egypt, what changes they led to, and why prospects for democracy in the country still appear bleak.

Hanna begins with sharing his first-hand experience of those weeks and months. After flying into Cairo from New York City in early 2011, what witnessed was “quite incredible”: “I should say that […] what was quite interesting were the number of people who joined the protest, not necessarily as activists, but as curious bystanders. It was like a civics class in many ways, asking questions of those in the square and elsewhere, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’"

Randeria probes him on whether the Arab Spring can be understood as a transformational event even today, or whether the ‘Tahrir moment’ was a wasted opportunity. He offers a nuanced answer: “Thinking back on what those people wanted […] it's hard to judge the present moment as anything like a success, obviously. That being said, this has had a massive impact on Egypt, on the region. And there are ways in which its impacts will be felt for generations to come”.

What protesters may have missed, he continues, is that “political ruptures are dangerous, even if entered into with good intentions. Even if autocrats who have misruled their countries and repressed their people are overthrown, there are vacuums that open. And I think there wasn't a full of appreciation of just how dangerous that moment was, despite the fact that it was a genuine political opening, there was great potential for political change and transformation”.

Download the podcast's transcript HERE

For more on this theme, READ Prof. Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou's interview on the state of democracy in Africa.


Michael Wahid Hanna is Senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and non-resident senior fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.

Shalini Randeria is the Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Rector of the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism).