Russia and Egypt: Stunning Parallels
A key comparison on the global relevance of the slow-motion Arab Spring.
September 11, 2013
In December 2010 — matching almost to the day the beginning of the Arab Spring — Russia’s capital city Moscow, some 2,000 miles away from Tunis and Cairo, was hit by serious ethnic riots. Soccer fans came out to Manezh Square near the Kremlin wall to protest the murder of a fan by a member of Moscow’s Caucasus diaspora.
It was a spontaneous outbreak and petered out almost as soon as it began. At the time, it was the biggest expression of discontent with Vladimir Putin’s rule to date.
A year later, in December 2011 — by which time governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had already fallen and Syria was in the midst of a massive popular uprising — Russia saw the birth of a more organized protest movement.
Up to 100,000 demonstrators staged a peaceful rally against crooked elections held for the Duma, Russia’s Parliament. They also protested Putin’s decision to return as president for an extended six-year term in office.
These protests continued into 2012 and culminated in a rally on May 6 of that year to mark Putin’s inauguration. As part of the “festivities,” Russia’s special police force, OMON, charged and beat up demonstrators.
Russia may be far removed from the Arab World, both geographically and in terms of politics, culture, economics and religion. Yet, their similarities are at least as striking as their differences — especially when we compare Russia with the largest Arab country, Egypt.
President Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years. This compares to Putin, who has been ruling Russia for nearly 15 years now — and counting. Mubarak, a former Air Force officer, came to power after a turbulent period in Egyptian history, during which the country lost two wars in six years.
Putin, an ex-lieutenant colonel in the KGB, Russia’s secret service, rose to power after an even more traumatic decade for his country.
That period of turmoil and transition featured the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of its communist ideology, the defection of the entire Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe into NATO and the European Union, hyperinflation and the destruction of savings and, to add insult to injury, default and ruble devaluation in August 1998.
Putin managed to introduce some order into this political and economic chaos, but Russia’s nascent democracy also fell victim in the process. He monopolized the political space, taking full control of major media outlets and cancelling the direct election of regional governors, who began to be appointed from above — meaning by him.
Officials in “business”
What about other tantalizing parallels between Egypt and Russia? Under Mubarak, the Egyptian Army became a potent economic force. Its empire is comprised of industrial holdings, choice real estate — including many prime tourist hotels — and chunks of service economy.
No one knows the exact extent of the military’s economic reach, but Al Jazeera estimates it can be anywhere from 15% to 40% of the country’s GDP.
In Russia, the FSB, the successor of the KGB, may not be directly involved in economic activity, but its officers surely are. They include Putin’s former colleagues in St. Petersburg and Dresden, who have become billionaires many times over by running Russia’s state-owned resource companies.
But there are also plenty of rank-and-file officers who have businesses on the side. They often send masked police officers to raid competitors and resolve business disputes in their favor. Under Putin, attending a special FSB school has become the surest and quickest way to get rich.
Religion as a factor
Religion also plays a role in both countries, although currently each respective one is vastly different. Mubarak was constantly at loggerheads with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamic fundamentalist group.
An experiment with political Islam in Egypt came to a bloody end in July with a military coup and the arrest of popularly elected Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi.
Russia is also going through a fundamentalist revival of the Russian Orthodox faith. But at least for now the Putin government and the church hierarchy appear to be allies.
The greatest similarity between the two countries lies in the kind of people who led the pro-democracy protests in Egypt and in Russia. Over the past two decades, both countries have seen the emergence of a new class: it is a group of well educated, Internet-savvy and mostly young people — even though there are plenty of forty-somethings among them.
It’s an international class that you might call “global citizens.” They have friends and professional connections all over the world, across national, religious and cultural boundaries.
They speak the same language as their peers in other countries and feel remarkably at ease not just in Moscow or Cairo but in Paris, London, Berlin and New York.
When they meet their colleagues at international conferences or chat on Facebook with fellow students, they have a hard time accepting why their European or American peers get to return to a normal social environment, while they have to live in repressive societies full of restrictions, repression, prejudice and hatred.
They are also concerned with the economy — both over the short run and more fundamentally. Both Egypt and Russia were hit hard by the global economic downturn in 2008 — far worse than other emerging economies — due to their inflexible economic systems.
But the recent economic stagnation in either country is merely a symptom of a far deeper economic problem that bedevils most countries that experienced the Arab Spring, as well as Russia. It is a direct result of a sclerotic, inflexible economy characterized by massive corruption and thievery at the top.
The number of dollar billionaires in Russia, at 131 according to Russia Today, is second only to the United States and twice as high as in Germany. It is almost four times as high as in the United Kingdom. Moreover, three of the five richest men in Britain are Russians.
At the same time, the average Russian consumer spends only around $7,000 per year on his or her needs, compared to nearly $26,000 for the average British one.
Corruption thrives on secrecy, bureaucratic red tape and backroom deals, which those in power in Egypt and Russia practice aplenty. These characteristics are inimical to the development of innovative, technologically advanced, entrepreneur-driven industries that employ today’s highly educated young workforces.
Skilled young people find no outlet for their skills and energies at home, be it Cairo or Moscow. These creatives are compelled to emigrate to Britain, Germany or Silicon Valley — or go out to the streets to protest.
For now, the Egyptian military has reestablished control over the country. This has not only squashed the Muslim Brotherhood but also thwarted the aspirations of Tahrir Square protesters who started the revolution.
The Russian government has cracked down on the opposition as well. It sent three members of the Pussy Riot punk group who staged an unauthorized performance at a church to a labor camp. And it put on trial two dozen mostly young protesters who participated in the May 6, 2012 rally.
In both countries, the authorities have won for now. But it was, most likely, merely Round One in what promises to be a long struggle. At least all those Russian billionaires who have been thriving in the country’s kleptocratic environment don’t think their good life there will endure.
The Ministry of Economic Development, while downgrading this year’s growth forecast for the Russian economy, upped its expectations for capital flight out of Russia, raising it to $70-75 billion this year.
Skilled young people find no outlet for their skills and energies at home, be it Cairo or Moscow.
These creatives are compelled to emigrate to Britain, Germany, Silicon Valley or to go to the streets to protest.
Egypt and Russia were hit hard by the global economic downturn due to their inflexible economic systems.
The greatest similarity between Egypt and Russia lies in the kind of people who led the pro-democracy protests.
The authorities in Russia and Egypt have won for now. But it was Round One in what promises to be a long struggle
Economic stagnation in each country results from an inflexible economy, massive corruption and top-level thievery.
Corruption thrives on secrecy, bureaucratic red tape and backroom deals, plenteous in Egypt and Russia.