Anti-government protesters celebrate atop a tank in Cairo's Tahrir square February 11, 2011. (Reuters)

History, it seems, moves too quickly.

Not even three 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.

insight kings college INSIGHT: From Russia, Lessons for Egypt 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.

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.

“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.” – Samuel A. Greene, King’s College London

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 USSR 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.

reu egypt russia2 300 23jul13 INSIGHT: From Russia, Lessons for Egypt

Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin (C), standing atop a tank, addresses a rally defying a coup attempt by Soviet hardliners, in Moscow, August 19, 1991. (Reuters)

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 percent 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 Mohamed 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.

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.

reu egypt russia3 300 23jul13 INSIGHT: From Russia, Lessons for Egypt

Protesters wave flags and shout slogans near an army tank during an anti-Mubarak rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square February 8, 2011. (Reuters)

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.

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.

This post was published previously on

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

 INSIGHT: From Russia, Lessons for Egypt

Samuel A. Greene

Samuel A. Greene is director of the King’s Russia Institute at King’s College London.

  • Jeff (Samir)

    Obama got less than 51% too. why American opponents did not go to the street to protest against him, and why general did not give him 48h to resign. it is because USA is a true democracy. Egyptian opponents want democracy their way, either we win or it is not democracy. Opponents in Egypt say that MB don’t have experience to manage economy. So, my question to you Sir, how has experience to do so? the old regime had suck the money out of Egypt for 60 years, they dry out the reserve, they steal, they corrupt, they did all nonsense against democracy, they kill innocent people, they torture under the name of democracy, they screw up really really bad. And now, they try to put the blame on the first democratically elected president in history that economy is slow and employment is high. Hey wake up guys, you look naive and trying to sell your naivety to people. The impact of the stupid Mobarak will stay there for at least 10 years. You can’t fix a 60 years old car by 5 dollars.
    Musicians are normally smart but you look not.

    Egyptian people are smarter than you think. They have learned the game, they know who is lying and who is not. They know that military can’t manage…..

    I don’t care about Morsi or whoever, all we need is an elected president. I prefer the worst president to lead Egypt but democratically elected by his people, than the best president in the world but elected by one army general. Democracy is the will of PEOPLE not generals. PEOPLE PEOPLE are the country, generals are their servants and not the opposite.

    Democracy start with Accepting to be looser. The elected president has his term, after his term don’t vote for him should you not accepting him for another term.

    Mr Musician, Egypt is not made out of Musician only, Egypt is 85million people. Not only because you think Luxor has to be managed by a musician that 85m people would allow you to do so. Democracy rule is “Majority Rule”

    Egypt must and will be governed by an elected government to lead the country’s business, because people trust them and don’t trust musicians. Musicians screw up the country so bad that people are fed up with your poisoness songs and lies.

    If you don’t like democracy go somewhere to sell your song’s CD, because Egypt will be governed by a democratically elected president whether he is Muslim or not. What matters most is democracy not who is governing.

    Sorry for dancers, musicians, and Mobarak buddies; find a place with no democracy. West is based on a strong democracy and will never tolerate to welcome you since you don’t like democracy. Go to Zimbabwi, they might welcome your non democratic songs.

    We like Musicians, artist, movies, west style life, Islam, Nile beach… We support them and we like their creativity, but only if they believe in democracy.
    but we prefer democracy first. Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.Democracy first.

    Long live Democracy.

    • Alan D

      Democracy in the hands of islamists or any other religionist is doomed. The entire basis of democracy is that every human has a right to his political and religious or non-religious beleifs. Islamism is fundamentally opposed to this premise. For the MB to place their cronies and religionist extremists, unvoted persons I stress, into key government positions, and then immediately write a new constitution completely averse to the principles of freedom of thought, religion, beleif and expression… this flies in the face of what democracy is all about. It is tragic that this has gone down this route, but frankly, it was a little despotism now, or the tyranny of religion over humanism and true freedom later.