Putinism in Cairo? The Rise of the Russian Model

Vladimir Putin on Thursday hailed the possibility of a run for the presidency of Egypt by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the architect of the July 3 coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Al-Sisi flew to Moscow this week in search of such support and of arms sales. The implicit message is that he is unhappy with the criticism of his coup by American politicians and threats on Capitol Hill to delay further US arms aid (the US gives Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid and $200,000 a year in civilian aid; these amounts have been overshadowed in $20 billion in pledges for this year alone from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait). Egypt is allegedly seeking $2 bn of arms from Russia, to be paid for by the United Arab Emirates, including fighter jets and helicopter gunships.

Putin said to al-Sisi,

” “I know you have decided to run for president.

“This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people.

“I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people.”

In fact, al-Sisi has not yet announced a run for the presidency, but it is widely expected at any moment (it depends in part on permission from his fellow officers in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces).

Al-Sisi’s bromance with Putin may be a very bad sign for Egypt’s political future, because he may want not only arms and diplomatic support from Moscow but also approval for his war on independent journalists and demonization of his political enemies. Both these tactics are reminiscent of Putin’s own.

Hopes for democratization in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have foundered on a neo-authoritarianism pushed by Putin, a former KGB (Soviet intelligence) officer who sided with Boris Yeltsin and democratic reformists in the early 1990s. That decade, however, was horrible for Russia, with economic collapse, humiliation at the hands of an aggressive United States, the loss of 10 million of the Russian Federation’s 150 million to high mortality (drinking a lot of vodka causes liver failure) and low fertility (people don’t have children when they think their future is bleak). Russia also faced a concerted drive for independence in Chechnya in the Caucasus by Chechen nationalists, which was crushed by Yeltsin, and then an extremist Muslim uprising involving both Daghestan and Chechnya in the late 1990s and early zeroes, crushed by Putin.

Putinism as defined by Anne Applebaum of the London School of Economics consists of several distinct political repertoires, including:

1. Managed elections. These polls have the appearance of free political competition but in fact are constrained in ways that ensure Putin’s election and that of his party in parliament. These managed elections are more “lifelike” than the elections in pure dictatorships, where the president for life wins by 98%. The latter are just rituals of affirmation of the dictator. Managed elections provide for a lower margin of victory and a greater semblance of voter choice, without actually allowing the latter. In 2012, for instance, Putin won with about 63% of the vote and had 4 rivals (another 11 would-be candidates were disqualified). The closest rival got only 17% of the vote.

2. Managed media (helpful for the managed elections). Only small newspapers or other media are allowed to be critical of Putin. Wealthy and important media is intimidated into self-censorship through spectacular arrests (Khodorkhovsky, Pussy Riot).

3. Corporate capitalism. Unlike in the old Soviet Union, corporate capitalism is favored, but big businessmen must be clients of the state in order to avoid arrest and disgrace.

4. Hydrocarbon rent-seeking (similar to Saudi Arabia), with fossil fuel companies owned by or close to the state providing a significant amount of the gross domestic product.

5. Demonization of political critics as foreign agents or terrorists and arbitrary arrests and/or sentences imposed on them.

6. Fear of citizen mass mobilization as a CIA-sponsored “color revolution;” this mobilization is combated by the steps above and by the illusion foisted on the people of supposed democratic change through the ballot box.

Putin appears to be offering al-Sisi this model, which has some appeal to a sector of the Egyptian public in the wake of the upheavals of the past 3 years.

The problem with Putinism is that it is ultimately not sustainable. It probably depends on a strong, charismatic national leader (could Putin’s successor really keep it up?) Managed elections only retain their perceived legitimacy over time if there are at least sometimes surprise victories by challengers. Otherwise, the elections come to be perceived as phony. It is also not clear that the soft dictator at the top of it can control the business classes and journalists forever. Authoritarianism seems strong to its supporters and practitioners, but it is in fact fragile and weak, and forestalls social, political and economic innovation. Putinism may have looked appealing to Russians in 2002 after the disastrous 1990s, but will it really appeal in 2020?

It is not only al-Sisi in Egypt who seems tempted by this model. Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey is adopting elements of it (although he has not so far tried to manage elections or institute a rentier economy, so his is a “lite” form of Putinism). In fact, you could argue that at the height of his power, former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi was deploying elements of Putinism– managing the press, passing laws to protect him from corruption charges, etc.– though again, the elections were probably not fixed. Democratization theory tends to portray the process as linear and universal, but significant numbers of our contemporaries live under one or another form of Putinism.

Putinism seems to me to cry out for a fourth category in addition to Freedom House’s “Free, Partly Free and Not Free.” FH ends up classing Russia with Communist China as both “Not Free.” But there is a difference between Putin’s authoritarianism and managed elections and press and the much more robust form of authoritarianism in China. Maybe “Managed Free.”

Unfortunately the US Congress is no bar to this path. They were perfectly happy to fund Hosni Mubarak’s undisguised dictatorship. They are nakedly instrumental and just want the peace treaty with Israel to be observed.

Fortunately there are less corrupt institutions.

One problem for Egypt in adopting Putinism is that Egypt lacks the fossil fuels that allow Putin to thumb his nose at the rest of the world. At the moment, the Gulf oil monarchies are willing to inject rentier oil funds into Egypt, but such offers are notoriously mercurial.

Another problem is that the European Union is Egypt’s largest trading partner, and Europe wants the officers to go back to their barracks. Europe has a great deal of leverage over time that will allow it to at least try to combat the turn to Putinism.

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Related video:

France24 reports on al-Sisi’s visit to Moscow:

34 Responses

  1. An excellent analysis as ever! It is sad to see that a revolution that was supported by such a large section of the population and provided such a promise to the rest of the Arab world has ended up in perhaps a worse shape than the regime under President Mubarak. I believe that your observation about the failure of Putinism and soft dictatorship will also apply to Egypt. I cannot believe that the millions who rose up against dictatorship in Egypt only three years ago will be content to put up with another military dictatorship for long. It should be remembered that dreams of democracy have a long history in Egypt. In fact, Muhammad Abduh’s attempts to reconcile democracy with Islam over a century ago provided a model for later Muslim reformers. His statement “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam” showed his great admiration for democratic West. Egypt’s economic weakness and the need for stability may delay another push for democracy, but it will come.

    • I cannot believe that the millions who rose up against dictatorship in Egypt only three years ago will be content to put up with another military dictatorship for long.

      Professor Cole was very insightful in 2011 in attributing the Arab Spring uprisings (or, at least, their spread to a large portion of the population) to economic pain.

      If the Egyptian economy starts humming along nicely, who’s going to look back on the Morsi years with nostalgia?

      (In case it isn’t clear, I’m not saying I would support or agree with such a response, just that it is easy to predict.)

      • “If the Egyptian economy starts humming along nicely, who’s going to look back on the Morsi years with nostalgia? (In case it isn’t clear, I’m not saying I would support or agree with such a response, just that it is easy to predict.)

        The Egyptians have made a rational choice to support a secular authoritarian government over an Islamist one. It is a perfectly rational choice, and whether one agrees with it and supports it or not is irrelevant.

        • Oh, are those the only two options?

          That’s funny, I don’t recall the 2011 demonstrators calling for an Islamist authoritarian government, and I don’t recall the 2013 protestors calling for a secular, authoritarian government. I recall them both calling for democracy.

        • Everyone calls for “democracy,” Joe. That is the mantra of the age. The fact is, however, there is a lot more support for the current secular authoritarian government in Egypt than there was for the Islamist authoritarian government under Morsi.

        • Interesting to watch Apologists for two different eras of the Empire going at each other over Who’s Smartest and Who’s Right. So comforting to know that folks like this are the ones who make and effectuate “policy” toward people and places like Syria and Chile and Nicaragua and Notagainistan. So horrid to read the books and articles that our Overlords, who do appear to have an Organizing Principle and thus the advantage over the rest of us, can let us “freely” examine, showing us how “free” we are in our Ruleoflaw Constitutional plantation, showing the evils that are practiced in our Exceptional Name, knowing how enervating and disabling that information can be. Wonder when they will get tired of the annoyance of providing Cover and Deniability, and just turn off the bandwidth spigot… “We have always been at war with Terrorstan.” “Resistance, given which way the money flows, and the degree of control the Collective has, and the impossibility of organized resistance, is futile…” “It is in the [undefined] National Interest!”

  2. Back to the future! It appears that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi views the United States’ unenthusiastic relationship with his government much as Gamal Abdel Nasser did during the period 1955-56. Nasser wanted arms from the U.S., but we sent mixed messages via the “back-channel” diplomacy of CIA officers Kermit Roosevelt and Miles Copland on the one hand, and “front-channel” diplomacy via Ambassador Henry Byroade on the other. Ultimately, the U.S. insisted that any arms deal include U.S. military officers accompanying the arms. Nasser objected, turned to the Soviet Union, and the Soviets arranged a deal to supply Nasser with Czech arms.

    With the Soviet-Czech arms deal, Nasser turned increasingly anti-U.S. As a result, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles withheld the financial aid promised Egypt to help build the Aswan High Dam. Once again, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for help, and the Soviets provided much of the financial aid to build the dam. From that point until Nasser’s death and the assumption of power of President Anwar Sadat in 1970, Egypt was openly hostile to the U.S.

    We should have learned from history (but, unfortunately, often we don’t). General al-Sisi may not be the poster-child for democracy that we would like, but he is in control of the most important Arab country in the Near East. If he turns to the Soviets due to our short-sighted policies of withholding arms and aid, and our propensity to publicly hector him over democracy and human rights, we will have only ourselves to blame. There is a place for advancing democracy and human rights in our toolkit, but it is best accomplished through quiet diplomacy. On the larger issue of our overall relationship with Egypt, it is in the U.S. national interest to maintain it in such a manner that Egypt sees it in its interest to rely on the U.S. and not turn to Russia, as Nasser did.

    • “If he turns to the Soviets”

      The who?

      The Cold War is over. If Obama’s efforts to promote democracy “lose Egypt” to Russia…so what? Are we playing Risk?

      What good did close relationships with Mubarak and the House of Saud do for us on 9/11? There may have been a time when “our son of a bitch” alliances were useful in advancing important American interests, but these days, they’re more trouble than their worth.

      If Putin and Sissi want to snuggle up, fine. The next airplanes can hit the Kremlin.

      • “The Cold War is over. If Obama’s efforts to promote democracy “lose Egypt” to Russia…so what?”

        So what? If you think it does not harm our interests having the most important Arab country aligned with Russia, you need to apply yourself a little harder to the study of the history of American-Russian relations in the Near East. I guess for you it is not enough to have Russia working against us in Syria and other issues. You apparently see nothing wrong with Egypt working against our interests as well.

        As I stated in my original comment, “We should have learned from history (but, unfortunately often we don’t).” You have just confirmed my point.

        • Bill’s perspective is valuable, but Joe’s questioning of the Mubarak relationship seems valid in itself. The question hinges largely on the definition of our interests. Pursuing oil and AIPAC doesn’t seem to have done anything for justice or democracy, and we could have bought the oil from any government there. If we had sought only justice and development we would have many allies, few wars and more oil than advisable. Russia and China would likely be allies in some sense, and our military budget would have produced roads and schools and hospitals rather than a list of mass atrocities. I wonder whether our military aid has not produced the arrogance of Egypt’s military as well as the fundamentalism it purports to defend against. Perhaps others can address that from their perspectives.

        • Apparently, your understanding of history ends in 1992. Pretty please, Bill, may we learn from the history of September 2001?

          You like to go on about national interests; I defy you to name a national interest more important than the prevention of mass-casualty terror attacks on our homeland.

          All else being equal, of course I’d rather have a friendly Egypt than a pro-Russian Egypt, but all else isn’t equal.

        • “Apparently, your understanding of history ends in 1992…May we learn from the history of September 2001?”

          The year 1992 has nothing to do with divergent interests of Russia and the United States in the Near East today. That dog won’t hunt, Joe.

          What you apparently fail to understand is the Egyptian political architecture had nothing to do with the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. It may be comforting for you to think the attacks would not have occurred if only we there were democracy in Egypt at the time. That, however, was not, and is not, what Al-Qaeda and the various Jihadist groups are all about.

    • Bill said:

      “We should have learned from history (but, unfortunately, often we don’t). General al-Sisi may not be the poster-child for democracy that we would like, but he is in control of the most important Arab country in the Near East. If he turns to the Soviets due to our short-sighted policies of withholding arms and aid….we will have only ourselves to blame.”

      Blame? Who could possibly blame us for snookering Putin’s Russia into assuming our idiot ‘responsibilities’ for paying-off Egypt on behalf of Israel? The geostrategic considerations of the Cold War evaporated 23 years ago and the USSR was bankrupt years, even decades, before that. The rump state lurks about the fringes remembering the glory days of her imperial past, but she is not really a player in the Middle East and has neither the wherewithal nor the geographical location to become one any time soon.

      ” There is a place for advancing democracy and human rights in our toolkit, but it is best accomplished through quiet diplomacy.”

      Is giving Egypt over a billion in weapons every year “quiet diplomacy”? We all know what it is for. It’s akin to a Mafia protection racket.

      “On the larger issue of our overall relationship with Egypt, it is in the U.S. national interest to maintain it in such a manner that Egypt sees it in its interest to rely on the U.S. and not turn to Russia, as Nasser did.”

      Seriously? What in particular is our interest in Egypt “not turning to Putin”. It should be articulated so that we can assess it. If it’s got something to do with protecting Israel from additional pressure to settle with the Arab World and Iran it will be exactly what we should be considering.

      • ” What in particular is our interest in Egypt “not turning to Putin”. It should be articulated so that we can assess it. If it’s got something to do with protecting Israel from additional pressure to settle with the Arab World and Iran it will be exactly what we should be considering.”

        Our interest in Egypt, the most important country in the Near East, has little to do with Israel and everything to do with our overall interests in the region. Your constant hobbyhorse appears to be your fixation on Israel. That is not America’s only interest and never has been. Israel has an outsized influence on U.S. policy, but it does not control our entire policy. You need to stop looking through the wrong end of the telescope and realize the larger U.S. interests in the Near East, which includes the Arab World writ large.

  3. The ideological battles of the past century have finally yielded a winner: sophisticated fascism parading as managed democracy. Where I disagree with your analysis is its failure to adequately address the embrace of Putinism or managed democracy in, yes, the United States of America. The war on drugs has been a cloaked race war for more than a generation. No-knock, military-style police raids are becoming the norm. Surveillance by the state at all levels is increasingly invasive and pervasive. The fascist and racist practice of stop and frisk is employed to control the populations in major American cities . Both American political parties have become virtual criminal gangs beholden to special interest groups who shower their members with untold millions of dollars. I could go on, but you probably get my point. Have the elites in America embraced Putinism?

    • Excellent comment! Although the “state” is not as strong an economic player as in Russia, just substitute the corporate sector here in the US. “Sham elections”? Just look how big money is controlling the political process in the US with our “two political parties”. Media control? Totally in the pocket of the corporate sector. The US is a perfect example of “soft fascism”.

  4. So much for the oft-seen argument that the overthrow of Morsi was an expression of the United States reasserting its influence in Egypt.

  5. get the genealogy right: Erdogan has been practicing Putinism, tho he’s hit a snag. Egypt, as part of the Neo-Ottoman political sphere, is emulating the mothership (only with the wrong commander).

    You might also want to look a little closer at the shifting economic base in Turkey. Putin had it easy, coming at a time of flux after state ownership; it was easier to install his people. Watch the shifts in media ownership, its ties to new3 construction interests profiting from state contracts and massive privatization of state assets, all going to a group of interlocking interests.
    In particular, see the work and the graphic representation of it, at Networks of dispossession, link to mulksuzlestirme.org. Then reconsider.

    • so, let’s see, the election in 2012 was managed to prevent Romney from winning; the WSJ and FoxNews are small media outlets; Obama calls opposition politicians foreign agents or throws them in jail; Occupy Wall Street was a CIA-sponsored plot, but we don’t have undue policy influence from the oil industry.

      thanks for pointing that out.

    • But apart from the quantifier”equally” the note is substantially true, where the Obama admin is seen as another face of the same plutocracy, as ArizonaBumblebee notes above.

      • Hardly. Putinism is not accidentally named for the fact that it describes the rule of a single actual person . I’m simply pointing out that if words have meanings, and Juan helpfully quoted the meaning of this one and provided a link that further reinforces the fact that it names a species of rule by s SINGLE INDIVIDUAL not a vaguely constituted class.
        Let’s also talk about the likelihood of Bill de Blasiovich, Mayor of Moscow, shall we?

  6. The fact that this arms purchased if having to financed so heavily by Gulf money rather than through Egypt alones speaks volumes about this charade. Not only that, the meeting was rushed due to an obvious desire by elements of the Egyptian elite to push this event as a late act in Sisi’s military career prior to his transformation into an overt politician.

    The most important purpose of the trip to Russia was, most likely, to give the illusion that foreign leaders will support and defend a Sisi presidency. The trouble though is that these are at best fair weather friends; they won’t get too close to the Egyptian authoritarians if they start to become too hated in Egypt itself.

    One thing that is not discussed enough with all the talk of Sisi’s supposedly overwhelmingly universal popular support is how well his cult will translate into a true political movement. Can Sisi actually retain this deified image created through a personality cult once he starts being forced to defend a platform and get into the grit of campaigning?

    Sure, the state and establishment will fanatically fight for him, but Egypt is in very bad economic straits. There is no indication that Sisi has any plan that will provide credible solutions to Egypt’s various problems. There is an opening for Hamdeen Sabahi to exploit, even if ultimately things are too stacked against him to win.

    There are reasons to be skeptical that Putinism or other forms of authoritarianism can be successfully sustained in Egypt. One is that the Egyptian deep state is significantly more brutal and open about its dictatorial tendencies than what exists in Russia. Putinism tries to avoid pushing things to such an extreme that Putin himself garners too much hatred. By contrast, the pro-Mubarak, pro-Sisi forces have very little restrain and are right now practicing torture and suppression of dissidents on a massive scale. Egyptian dictatorship does 99.8% votes, not 55.7%.

    Even more importantly, Egyptian opinion will not be patient with failure, and it swings sharply against incumbents if they do not deliver. There is no reason to think that Sisi will be immune to this problem. Sisi supporters cannot wish away Egypt’s recent history of revolutionism; especially not when they encouraged massive protests against Morsi. The same logic that worked against Morsi could definitely bring down the more authoritarian Sisi in the future. The tendency of the country to be drawn toward extremes also will work against the military establishment’s attempts to permanently impose itself.

    Simply put, either an attempt to reestablishment Mubarakism in the guise of a semi-fascist order or an effort to employ Putinism will result in the system being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the coming years. Neither can deliver the goods that Egyptians are looking for and the sky high, messianic expectations surrounding Sisi will disappoint harshly.

    It also appears that Putin is not succeeded yet in turning Ukraine into a vassal. Yanukovych has a shaky presidency that has suffered a substantial diminishment in popularity while facing a determined opposition. Additionally, the Russian bailout for Ukraine failed to advanced Putin’s agenda to an appreciable degree.

    • “The trouble though is that these are at best fair weather friends”
      Looks like that is the only kind of weather prevalent in Egypt, fair weather revolution, fair weather democracy, fair weather believers, etc.
      But I get your point, they would be a fair weather fools if they think any other country is going to underwrite their security and economy perpetually.

  7. I agree with arizonabumblebee….further many nations besides Russia are taking control of its populations via the corporate media, business and the military: China, India, Indonesia, etc.etc. AND THE USA of course with all that I have written here plus so many different laws in so many different U.S. states taken parts of the little freedom we have away portion by portion.

  8. There is an additional aspect that makes Sisi similar to Putin: both come from careers in intelligence. Sisi’s entire career has been in military/general intelligence and he knows how to manipulate and control very effectively.
    SCAF has already given him permission in run for President: There was a very public statement of that, which makes SCAF take sides in a political race– something SCAF has never overly done before — quite worrisome.
    Aside from Egypt’s inability to use its fossil fuels for political/foreign policy gain, as it is so dependent on external sources, SCAF/Sisi are likely to use the military to operate aspects of the economy (even more than is already done). For example, all the contracts for repairing railways etc this Fall were given to the military, which uses free (conscript) labor. The businessmen in Egypt who operate private TV stations are not challenging Sisi, unlike moguls in Russia (at least in the past) — they are fawning all over him.
    The agreement with Russia has been in process since some time in September; I guess they had to get the Saudi and UAE funding in place before Sisi’s trip to Russia. But it certainly does reinforce the image of Sisi as the new Nasser, an image that is being cultivated daily.

  9. One word of caution: this is an accurate analysis of Putin’s Russia in 2004, but has limited relevance to today’s Russia (Putinism today is a quite ordinary urban-machine politics, similar to the rule of Mexico’s PRI or Japan’s LDP during the 1950-1975 period). Russia has a vast and growing middle-class, a vast digital commons (close to 70 million web users out of a population of 142 million), and a thriving digital media culture with plenty of open dissent (including some of the best hip hop in the world). It has a genuine albeit deeply flawed democracy. The biggest reason Russia isn’t a helpful model for Egypt, though, is urbanization. Russia has been highly urbanized since the 1960s, but Egypt has a majority rural population, and urgently needs a coherent state-led industrialization program (i.e. investing in education, green energy, mass housing). My own feeling is that rather than relying on fickle Gulf donors, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt should sit down and hammer out a regional development policy — Libya has cash, Tunisia has expertise, and Egypt has a huge labor poor and networks of state-owned factories. Put it all together and the Maghreb will blossom.

      • World Bank statistics shows Egypt with 56.3% rural mix. More importantly, over 50% illiteracy. Disappointing to see you reference what happened mid 2013 as a coup. Frankly very naive and shows little understanding of The culture, psyche and politics of Egypt, to say nothing of where the Moslem Brotherhood was hijacking the country. We should have learned our lessons on Iraq and Afghanistan!

    • “Libya has cash, Tunisia has expertise, and Egypt has a huge labor poor and networks of state-owned factories. Put it all together and the Maghreb will blossom.”

      Egypt is not considered part of the Maghreb. The Maghreb includes Northwest Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya) lying west of Egypt. That said, the idea of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt cooperating on a development program is a pipe dream. They would never agree on priorities.

  10. Why look to Putin as a model? Isn’t it obvious that the model is simply the restoration of Mubarak’s regime? They have no lessons to learn from Russia. Moreover Russia’s authoritarian regime has no special role for the armed forces, as does Egypt’s. Russia’s interest in Egypt and flattery of al-Sisi is pragmatic, and based on hoped for trade advantages.

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