Arab Regimes’ International Linkages and Authoritarian Learning: Toward an Ethnography of Counter-Revolutionary Bricolage  

By Reinoud Leenders, King’s College London

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “International Diffusion and Cooperation of Authoritarian Regimes,” held on June 8–9, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany                

The resilience of authoritarian rule throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has alerted scholars to what intuitively may appear to be self-evident: Arab autocrats do not operate in an international vacuum but variously draw on their external environments to mobilize resources and expertise, learn from successes and failures, adjust to changes, and respond to the challenges of mass mobilization and –increasingly – insurgencies. Some of the emerging literature on the MENA’s authoritarian diffusion has focused on “authoritarian learning.” Within this niche researchers centered their attention on “emulation.” They did so primarily in an attempt to read regime incumbents’ calculations and calibrations as they watched early counter-revolutionary responses in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, absorbed lessons, and developed their own strategies. More generally, the literature on international dimensions of authoritarian governance rewardingly adopted some of the concepts and starting points of democratic diffusion approaches to explore the regional and international dimensions of authoritarian diffusion.

Arguably, it is time that we stand Levitsky and Way’s main hypothesis about “international linkages and democratization”[1] on its head and ask whether and how the scope and density of their international linkages helped Arab authoritarian incumbents in their counter-revolutionary strategies. First, such international linkages are understood to comprise Arab regime incumbents’ ties to other authoritarian regimes both within the region and beyond. Accordingly, the proposed perspective promises to shed some light on the rather muddled and contested concept of “autocracy promotion.” By no longer guessing at the intentions of “black knights” (authoritarian regimes purposely promoting autocratic governance elsewhere) we shift our research to observable ties among authoritarians and their relevance to regime maintenance. At the same time, a focus on Arab regimes’ international linkages informed by an ethnographic research agenda compels us to transcend assumptions about the overriding effects of geographical and/or political proximity, which appear to make more sense when it comes to intra-authoritarian emulation. By taking authoritarian regimes’ global linkages seriously, we challenge the morally gratifying but inaccurate narrative of dictators patting each other on their backs while, in contrast, links to Western democracies are primarily viewed as raising the costs of authoritarianism.

International linkages, authoritarian learning and bricolage

To start framing the study of international ties that arguably help inform authoritarian governance, I suggest borrowing Levitsky and Way’s concept of “international linkages” but broadening it to include authoritarian regimes’ ties to both Western democratic and (regional) authoritarian countries. This strips the concept from its expected democratizing significance, leaving us to define international linkages as “the density of ties (economic, political, diplomatic, social, and organizational) and cross-border flows (of capital, goods and services, people, and information) among particular countries […].”[2] Furthermore, we are ultimately interested in the extent to which such international linkages – encompassing “the myriad networks of interdependence that connect individual polities”[3] – provide a site or transmission belt for authoritarian learning. The latter is preliminarily understood here to refer to international and transnational interactions enabling the exchange or transfer of knowledge, ideas, insights, models, expertise, skills and/or technology that can be used at the service of a regime’s efforts to adjust, enhance or optimize authoritarian governance. More specifically, at times of potential protest diffusion, like during the Arab uprisings and their aftermath, such learning may be assumed to help regimes build “autocratic firewalls.”

Finally – and to both acknowledge and capture the eclectic qualities of authoritarian learning in a world where few present themselves as being in the business of “autocracy promotion” – I propose adding the notion of counter-revolutionary bricolage. This term inverts Selbin’s “revolutionary bricolage,” which denotes mass movements’ selective borrowing from and appropriating a variety of repertoires and registers of contention worldwide.[4] Not so different from their revolutionary contenders, authoritarian regimes are, from this perspective, perusing their international linkages to cobble together counter-revolutionary policies, strategies and tactics from a variety of repertoires or tested methods of governance. I hypothesize that regime incumbents reassemble these elements in adjusted forms for local use as they seek effective measures to counter challenges to their rule.

Proximate linkages

Arab regimes’ proximate linkages denote geographically close ties with neighboring countries and, in terms of regime type, relations with authoritarian regimes within and beyond the region. Given the region’s high concentration of authoritarian regimes, geographically and politically proximate linkages largely overlap. Following the Arab uprisings, there have been some marked changes in how regime incumbents are tied to each other in ways that may have enabled or encouraged authoritarian learning.

Firstly, regional security cooperation especially between the Gulf states and Arab monarchies received a considerable boost. This involved increased linkages – comprising authoritarian incumbents, army and security personnel, and defense specialists – among Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, expanding to the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies after the latter were invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in September 2011. An exchange of security personnel and increased regional outlook of the UAE’s and Jordan’s defense colleges and military training facilities are of particular relevance in this context. While cast in terms of anti-terrorism and “national security” more broadly, it seems reasonable to assume that such linkages are spawned and reinforced to allow newly acquired skills and knowledge in these fields to feed into regime maintenance efforts.

Secondly, authoritarian regimes strengthened their bilateral linkages, foremost Syria and Iran, to directly counter insurgencies to the extent that their political and security apparatus virtually merged. Ensuing political and material linkages between the two regimes incorporated a vital transfer of knowledge, technologies and skills, further enabling the Syrian regime to fight off steep challenges at many fronts. Countering mass protests, cyber policing, military training and advice on counter-insurgency tactics are among the numerous fields in which Iranian-Syrian linkages flourished.

Thirdly, Arab regimes have built linkages to non-state actors with expertise and skills in irregular warfare, anti-terrorism operations and security techniques more generally. In the Gulf countries and Jordan this is particularly apparent in the proliferation of private military and security companies (PMSCs) offering a host of services, including expertise and advice on anti-terrorism operations, surveillance, cyber technology, and the protection of critical infrastructure. Dubai has become a hub for such companies setting up their headquarters there with the clear intention to serve clients throughout the region. Jordan, too, counts several PMSCs that appear to advise governments on a host of security techniques and technologies that could directly feed into authoritarian learning. In Syria it has been primarily Hezbollah that – in addition to providing skilled and well-trained manpower for the regime’s military campaigns – has been offering tactical advice to the regime and training to both the regular armed forces and pro-regime militias.

Linkages to authoritarian regimes beyond the region have also expanded considerably, primarily through the growing interventionism of Russia and its considerable support to the Syrian regime. Yet beyond Russia’s material and diplomatic support there is little evidence of Russian advice and expertise informing or helping the Syrian regime’s impressive array of counter-revolutionary tactics and strategies at home. Indeed, some of the advice reportedly given by the Russian military in Syria – such as dissolving the NDF and instead relying on regular forces – have not been heeded, perhaps because of the greater leverage of the Iranians who heavily invested in the NDF.[5] Framed in Levitsky and Way’s terminology, the intense cooperation between Syria and Russia appears to be a rare case of “high linkage-low leverage,” made all the more extraordinary given the Russians’ vital military support to the regime.

Beyond Syria, Russia’s post-2011 linkages to authoritarian Arab states and authoritarian BRICS states’ ties to the region, seem more limited. Another exception may develop in relation to Russia’s posturing toward Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, as the two countries signed a $2 billion arms deal in February 2014 and held joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea a year later. However, here too the Russian move does not seem to be part of an elaborate effort of “autocracy promotion” immersed in tightening networks of authoritarian learning; rather it appears to be motivated by the Egyptian regime signaling to the United States that it can circumvent human rights conditions placed on the delivery of military hardware and the Russians seizing an opportunity to contest U.S. hegemony and find customers in the Middle East for its arms industry.

Ties to the West

Accompanying a massive transfer of Western military hardware and technology to the MENA are intense linkages with the West involving military and security instructors, trainers, maintenance engineers, and advisors. Much of such programs and exchanges are framed in terms of supporting allies’ legitimate “national security” concerns and “anti-terrorism” efforts. Often curricula taught to Arab students explicitly incorporates democracy, human rights promotion, peace-keeping, and “security sector reform.” Yet one may reasonably suspect that the dual use of such deep linkages, in addition to their lacking transparency, make this transfer of military technology, knowledge and experience a rich source for authoritarian learning.

Contrary to initial expectations, linkages connecting Western and Arab intelligence seem to be as robust as ever five years after the Arab uprisings, and both U.S. and European policymakers are striving to make them ever stronger. Little is known about what these intimate Western dealings with Arab intelligence agencies do to the latter, especially whether it exposed them to a transfer of Western skills, techniques and expertise in tracing suspects, surveillance and interrogation and whether such acquired capabilities fed into enhanced techniques of authoritarian governance more generally. The assumption that it had such effects seems plausible enough to investigate further.

Following their intense use by U.S. forces in Iraq, a large number of Western PMSCs established their regional headquarters in Dubai in a bid to reach new clients. The region’s instability and armed conflicts after 2011 provided new impetus. For instance, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (now renamed Academi), has provided advice and personnel with the explicit aim of securing regime incumbents in the UAE, Jordan and Libya.[6] Western PMSCs in Dubai have offered their clients the services of “embedded staff” in security agencies, highly skilled, experienced and often retired military, security and police officers. Western security and police experts have also been hired in their personal capacities in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. The region’s sprouting defense and security colleges, including Abu Dhabi’s National Defense College, are almost entirely staffed by ex-U.S. military.

Western firms offer their MENA clients products, services and support in surveillance and policing techniques – ranging from CCTV and phone hacking devices, to biometric authentication technology – in addition to prison and riot police tools and gear that are often subjected to EU export bans.[7] West-European and North American companies specializing in “lawful interception” software supplied, advised and supported most Arab regimes’ efforts to survey, control and manipulate the internet, and to spy on its local users.

If the Arab uprisings were at least partly informed by grievances over widespread regime corruption and cronyism, Arab authoritarian incumbents’ response appears to have been to hide, launder and secure their ill-gotten wealth in even more elaborate ways. Western financial institutions sold products to and advised Arab authoritarian incumbents in setting up a myriad of shell and front companies and built a chain of subsidiaries in (offshore) jurisdictions worldwide to counter identification of their ultimate owner. The Panama Papers – leaked documents of Panama-based Mossack Fonseca legal firm – already showed how several Arab regime incumbents are tied to Western financial institutions. Their full disclosure is likely to offer a wealth of information on the international financial linkages of Arab authoritarian regimes and how these ties assist them to hide their wealth.

Before 2011, Western support for “reform” in the region rarely had the desired result of generating significant democratic change and, from a democratization perspective, it could even be considered as counter-productive. More often than not, reform assistance provided regimes with new cooptation techniques to replace those left obsolete by retrenching states. In the midst of the Arab uprisings, the U.S. and the European Union promised to reconsider their reform-based aid to authoritarian regimes. Yet with security concerns over terrorism and refugee flows crowding out stated sympathies with protestors’ demands, the reform narrative soon became acceptable again. Western reform assistance resumed to Arab countries where regime incumbents have no intention to embark on meaningful reforms. Once again, “dancing with wolves”[8] inexorably causes Western donors in the post-revolutionary MENA to provide authoritarian “reformers” with the linkages and resources that help them to entrench their power.

An ethnography of counter-revolutionary bricolage

Arab authoritarian regimes appear to have built and nurtured a web of international linkages allowing for an exchange or transfer of knowledge, ideas, insights, models, expertise, skills and/or technology directly relevant to authoritarian governance. These linkages could be viewed as informing authoritarian learning and, in turn, they may feed into regime strategies to adjust to and overcome steep challenges to their rule. Strikingly, Arab regimes have established dense linkages with agents in the region and beyond. They also do not appear to be particularly choosy when drawing on these linkages whether to other authoritarian regimes or to democratic countries. Indeed, authoritarian incumbents appear to engage in bricolage at a truly global scale, utilizing various often-contradictory repertoires or tested methods of repression and cooptation. Put differently, Arab regimes’ “recombinant authoritarianism”[9] has a strong international dimension. It also appears that the study of linkages between authoritarian regimes, although imperative, should not be privileged, or perhaps not even be separately pursued, In fact, a strong case could be made for the study of Arab regimes’ linkages to the democratic West as being of equal or, in some cases, even greater importance to authoritarian learning. Furthermore, regimes’ linkages to democratic and authoritarian countries are at times mutually reinforcing. Also noteworthy is that Arab regimes’ international linkages appear to increasingly comprise numerous non-state actors, ranging from Hezbollah, to Western PMSCs, to international banks. Arab regimes eagerly turn to them whenever needs and opportunities arise to strengthen authoritarian rule at home.

The international linkages that feed into regime strategies and authoritarian governance can be viewed as sites for ethnographic research on authoritarian bricolage. As Levitsky and Way observe, “[m]any international effects that are commonly described as ‘global’ are, in fact, rooted in concrete ties – networks; organizations, and flows of people, information, and resources – among states.”[10] In this context, it may be fruitful to consult anthropologists who in response to globalization developed methodologies of “multi-sited fieldwork” catered to the “study of phenomena dispersed across borders and articulated in flexible networks.”[11] For our purposes, the finely-grained nature of such an ethnographic inquiry would help to establish the exact learning effects enabled by regimes’ international linkages, distinguish them from other forms of authoritarian diffusion, and explore how these effects were translated in concrete policy adaptation. It may also be a fruitful starting point to explore the conception, transfer and exchange of values and norms that may also be suspected to inform authoritarian learning. By viewing Arab regimes’ international linkages as constituting an “authoritarian epistemic community,”[12] an ethnography of authoritarian learning could develop its own approach to “socialization,” borrowing from Europeanization studies and, perhaps more pertinently, criminology.

Some may object that an ethnography of authoritarian linkages and learning will be seriously hampered by lack of access to the shady and secretive sites where knowledge and values relevant to authoritarian governance are likely to be produced and shared. In some cases this indeed will impose serious challenges. Yet agents maneuvering in many of the proposed sites for ethnographic research have their own imperatives to present themselves to the outside world, giving the researcher a way to approach informants. Such self-presentations often reside in the “dual use” or Janus-faced nature of many of the linkages discussed, ranging from “anti-terrorism” cooperation, the imperative of “intelligence sharing,” and “lawful interception” software, to “reform” more generally. Even the most contentious linkages among authoritarian incumbents are no longer clouded in total secrecy, as they too feel compelled to tell the world that they have a cause worth fighting – and linking up – for.[13]


[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, Cambridge University Press (2010).

[2] Ibid., 43.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eric Selbin, Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of History, Zed Books (2010), 40-41.

[5] Ibrahim Hamidi, “Russian intervention urges to dismantle ‘defence forces’,” Al-Hayat, 11 October 2015 (in Arabic).

[6] Mark Mazzetti and Emily B. Hager, “Secret Desert Force Set up by Blackwater’s Founder,” The New York Times, 14 May 2011; Matthew Cole and Jeremy Scahill, “Erik Prince in the Hot Seat,” The Intercept, 24 March 2016.; Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Profile Books (2011).

[7] Omega Research Foundation and Amnesty International, “Why the EU Should Ban the Commercial Marketing and Promotion of Inhumane Policing and Prison Equipment,” 9 May 2016.

[8] Oliver Schlumberger, “Dancing with Wolves: Dilemmas of Democracy Promotion in Authoritarian Contexts,” in: Dietrich Jung (ed), Democratization and Development: New Political Strategies for the Middle East, Palgrave Macmillan (2006), 33-60.

[9] Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders, “Authoritarian Governance in Syria and Iran: Challenged, Reconfiguring, and Resilient,” in: Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders (eds), Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran, Stanford University Press (2013), 7.

[10] Levitsky and Way, Competitive Authoritarianism, 44.

[11] Finn Stepputat and Jessica Larsen, “Global Political Ethnography: A Methodological Approach to Studying Global Policy Regimes,” DIIS Working Paper, 2015, 6.

[12] Thanks to Steven Heydemann for suggesting the term.

[13] See e.g.: Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, “General Qasem Soleimani: Iran’s Rising Star,” BBC News, 6 March 2015.