From Russia, lessons for Egypt

Can manipulating the democratic process ever play out in the interest of progressive politics? Samuel A. Greene suggests not: we’ve been in this situation before, in post-Soviet Russia, with largely calamitous results. 

Sam Greene
23 July 2013

History, it seems, moves too quickly.

Just two short weeks ago, the world’s pundits were consumed by the question of whether to call the military’s return to power in Egypt a coup, and thus whether to condemn it. Today, they are consumed by the question of how the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will name the newest heir to the British throne, and thus they have decided, by omission, not to condemn it.

A new baby is always a wonderful thing, a royal one perhaps royally so, but that will be little solace to the people of Egypt, who are only the latest victims of the shortness of modern memory. The road they must now travel – some jubilantly, some downtrodden, and others, felled by the bullets of the army that saved them, not at all – is not a new one.

As Western commentators and policymakers grappled, briefly, with the question of whether recent events in Egypt constituted a coup, and whether the subversion of elections that brought Islamist leadership to power might somehow become a boon for democracy, they might have remembered that we have been here before.


'Democracy' in Russia during the 1990s — little more than a joke supported by the West. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia Commons/ITAR-TASS

Nothing is more deadly for a democracy than a foregone conclusion. Nothing is more lethal to liberalism than forsaken principles. The two, taken together, make a recipe for enduring authoritarianism. That, in a nutshell, is the lesson of 20-years of post-Soviet Russian history – and it’s one that Egypt’s well-wishers should bear in mind.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-communist president, is widely remembered in the West as the bringer of democracy – and his successor, Vladimir Putin, as democracy’s hangman. The reality, however, is that Russian democracy was dead well before Putin ever took power, and Yeltsin, together with well-intentioned allies in the West, killed it in a process not unlike that currently underway in Egypt.

After the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Yeltsin brought into power a series of liberal technocratic governments, charged with stabilizing a collapsed economy, privatizing industry, launching free enterprise and opening up trade with the world. The fact that these reforms would lay the groundwork for the unprecedented prosperity Russia enjoys today was scant consolation to Russians at the time, who saw their savings wiped out, faced hyperinflation and mass unemployment, and were forced to compete in the worst sort of cutthroat capitalism.

By the end of 1996 the message to Russian voters was clear: your democracy will be without choice, your liberalism without liberty.

It is always the case that the pain of reform precedes the gain, particularly for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. When political and economic liberalization go hand in hand, as they did in Russia, this presents a problem: liberal, reforming governments are voted out. Facing the prospect of political defeat and conservative retrenchment twice, Yeltsin resorted to a military attack on parliament in 1993 and a rigged election in 1996.

Thus, by the end of 1996 the message to Russian voters was clear: your democracy will be without choice, your liberalism without liberty. Small wonder, then, that most Russians rapidly lost interest in their political process, glumly threw in their lot with strongmen, watched the dismantling of the free press and free elections with idle disgust, and turned toward more lucrative pursuits. It wasn’t until 2011 that Russia’s remaining democrats were able to muster even a tenth of the numbers that came out to defend Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev against a hard-line coup in 1991 – and even then, it wasn’t enough. Even now, Russia’s strongest opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is polling at below 15% for a mayoral vote in Moscow, Russia’s richest and most liberal city. The traumas of betrayal are not easily forgotten.

The differences between Egypt today and Russia in the 1990s are obvious. The anti-democratic coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power is not the same as Yeltsin’s efforts to stay in power. And the tasks of reform that will face Hazem el-Beblawi and Mohamed ElBaradei, if they assume the helm of a liberal, technocratic government, are distinct from those faced by Yegor Gaidar and his colleagues in Russia. Perhaps most importantly, Egyptians have not yet had the opportunity to grow disappointed with democracy.

Seen from the bottom up, it is treachery, disenfranchisement and humiliation.

But from the perspective of voters – whether the majority of Egyptians who voted Morsi in, or the majority of Russians who tried to vote Yeltsin out – the difference is academic. Seen from the bottom up, it is treachery, disenfranchisement and humiliation.

The fact that it comes in the name of liberalism and with the tacit support of the West makes matters worse, not better. It is difficult enough to get a population to support painful reforms in a system that endows liberal policymakers with democratic legitimacy. After Yeltsin’s high-minded machinations, the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘usurper’ will forever be synonymous in the eyes of many Russians. Given the E.U.’s insistence on technocratic governance in Greece and Italy, sentiment there may soon follow suit. Egypt’s newly installed liberals should know that by accepting power from the hands of the generals, they are almost certainly condemning not only their own political careers, but the future of liberal politics in Egypt for a generation or more.


Many Egyptians celebrated when the army announced the removal of Mohammed Morsi. But have liberal democractic politicians signed their own death warrant by accepting power without a democratic mandate? Photo: (cc) Demotix/Sharron Ward

The West, which once saw Yeltsin as the best hope for delivering Russia from totalitarianism, may now see el-Beblawi, ElBaradei and their backers in the military as the coolest heads in Cairo. And, for a time, they may deliver the results the West so badly wants, particularly a steady relationship with Israel, a close eye on radicalism and even a modicum of economic recovery. But if stability in Cairo is bought by the West, as it once was in Russia, at the expense of the voices and aspirations of voters, however confused and muddled they may seem, the people of Egypt will not thank us for it.

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