With Western democracy on the defensive, China's Xi Jinping is aggressively advancing a new model for human governance in the 21st century: personal dictatorship backed by nationalism, state-directed capitalism and a security apparatus empowered by cutting-edge technologies. There's no pretense of evolution toward democracy or even the rule of law. On the contrary, Xi explicitly casts his regime as an alternative that "offers a new option for other countries."
Among the world leaders seemingly most likely to embrace this neo-totalitarianism are Russia's Vladimir Putin and Egypt's Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, both of whom have consolidated personal power on a platform of nationalism. So it's interesting that both Putin and Sissi are putting on presidential elections this month.
Sure, these are not real elections. They are Potemkin pageants that will award the two strongmen overwhelming victories, thanks in part to the exclusion of all serious opponents. The only suspense about the March 18 vote in Russia, or the ballot in Egypt concluding 10 days later, will be about the abstention rate, because opposition leaders in both countries are calling for boycotts.
Still, it's telling that Putin and Sissi feel compelled to engage in something resembling a democratic exercise and even to campaign for votes. Putin has been touring factories and last Thursday delivered a fiery nationalist speech reeking of Trumpesque populism. For his part, Sissi ginned up a new, made-for-television military campaign in the Sinai Peninsula last month, and last week his chief prosecutor launched a broadside against an always-popular target, the foreign news media.
Why bother? "I think the answer is obvious: legitimacy," says Stanford University's Larry Diamond, an expert on global democratic trends. "There is still enough resonance today of the democracy principle so that leaders like Sissi and Putin feel the need to show that they have won in a superficially competitive election, that they are the people's choice."
Of course, Russia and Egypt started their march toward 21st-century autocracy from a different place than China. Both once had relatively free elections — Egypt in 2011 and Russia as recently as Putin's first presidential run, in 2000. It's not easy to renounce that tradition completely, or overnight. So Putin and Sissi have acted by increments, gradually eliminating the space for opposition parties, civil society groups and critical media.
Four years ago Sissi allowed a genuine opponent, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, to run against him. This year his four potentially serious challengers, including two former senior military officers, were jailed or threatened with prosecution to keep them off the ballot.
Putin's propagandists claim that he enjoys overwhelming support from Russians, yet the new czar also no longer allows himself to be tested by real competition. A decade ago, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was permitted to run for president against Putin's stand-in, Dmitry Medvedev. Now Nemtsov is dead — assassinated outside the Kremlin — while the country's most popular dissident, Alexei Navalny, is banned from this year's vote.
Xi has locked in his right to rule for life by moving to abolish the two-term limit on China's presidency. But neither Putin nor Sissi has yet dared to take that step. Officially, Putin will be ineligible for election after his next term expires in 2024, while Sissi said as recently as November that he would not try to lift Egypt's two-term limit, which could force him from office in 2022.
Perhaps their lack of nerve is a testament to the unique carrot and stick of Xi's regime: a still robustly growing economy, combined with a domestic security service that is adopting tools such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition. Already, in China, technology exists that can detect train passengers breaking minor rules and punish them with reductions in their "social credit" scores.
It's hard to imagine Egypt achieving the technological competence to impose such citizen-by-citizen control anytime soon. Putin's agents could do it, but that would break his implicit pact with Russians — to leave them alone in exchange for political passivity. Meanwhile, neither Putin nor Sissi can offer his people the prospect of steadily improving living standards.
What all this suggests is that Xi-type totalitarianism is unlikely to spread anytime soon as a full-fledged alternative to liberal democracy. Liberal values may be in retreat in much of the world, and even established democracies are on the defensive. But the appeal of the popular vote remains strong enough that even the most repressive countries are unlikely to abandon it.
Diamond says that what's true of Egypt and Russia is also holding across Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. "I guess the good news is that they still need to put on the show," he says. "The bad news is that it is an increasingly hollow and fraudulent show, and yet they are getting away with it."
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column that appears on Mondays.