Saturday , August 16, 2014 - 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON — The two world leaders look absurdly alike: Their stature, their suits, their haircuts and hairlines. They even appear to have coordinated sunglasses and ties. Could it really be a coincidence?
On Tuesday, BuzzFeed published a series of photographs of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The photographs, captured by various news agencies, showed what was no doubt a boring visit between two heads of states with corny photo opportunities and plenty of handshakes. But BuzzFeed’s framing was perfect: They titled the post “Compelling Evidence That Russia’s Putin And Egypt’s Sissi Are Actually The Same Person.”
The Egyptian president was in Sochi, Russia, to discuss closer ties with his Russian counterpart. Tellingly, it was his first official trip outside of the Arab World. After the Arab Spring and the complicated Muslim Brotherhood-era, el-Sissi appears to be seeking a future for Egypt that is outside of the United States’ sphere of influence. Putin and Russia are the obvious choice.
Putin’s Russia offers not only an ally, however. Putin’s leadership style may offer pointers for el-Sissi. You could see it in the recent election, where el-Sissi won the presidency with an almost farcical 93 percent of the vote. Those results smacked of “Putinism,” a term that has been bandied around for years in an attempt to place the Russian leaders blend of media-driven autocracy and state capitalism. As Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch jailed in Putin’s Russia, put it last year: “It’s an attempt to run a huge country in ‘manual mode.‘”
In a Putinist society, legitimate election results of 93 percent aren’t uncommon: The opposition is too neutered and apathetic to even make it to the poll. Other parts of el-Sissi’s regime, included the targeting of media and demonization of rivals, have been called Putinism.
Coincidentally, el-Sissi’s visit to Sochi came a couple of days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won his country’s first direct presidential election. Erdogan’s plan to switch from prime minister to presidency has the distinct air of Putin. Like the Russian leader, he made the jump after serving the two terms he was allowed (though the switch is the reverse of Putin’s own jump). And many Turkish observers expect him to extend the powers of the president’s office and attempt to place someone he can control in the prime minister’s office.
Erdogan has been leading Turkish politics for the past 11 years — not quite Putin’s 14 years, but not that far off — and he has been accused of Putinism for years. However, his ascension to presidency, combined with recent clampdowns on social media and street protests, have lent those accusations further credibility.
Erdogan and el-Sissi are far from isolated. Writing last month for The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria noted that Hungary’s Viktor Orban’s announcement that his country would become an “illiberal state” smacked of Putinism. The appeal was even broader among politicians not in power, Zakaria noted: Much of the reactionary right wing parties that had found partial success in the heart of Europe over the past few years were led by people who had expressed an admiration for Putin’s worldview (France’s Marine le Pen and Britain’s Nigel Farage, for example). These parties are fringe parties now, but there are plenty of signs they are getting more popular.
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