Competitive Support from Regional Patrons and Democratic Transitions
Developing World Politics
Only recently have scholars started to pay attention to the regional dimension of authoritarianism and democratization in the Middle East. Motivated by the growing literature that focuses on the role Russia and China play in “authoritarian promotion” and “diffusion”, scholars have explored the role of “learning” and regional organizations in authoritarian resilience and identified Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran as active authoritarian prompters or “Black Knights” who use various forms of economic, military, and political assistance to bolster authoritarian governments. This paper shifts the focus from simple authoritarian cooperation and promotion to a specific type of authoritarian support characterized by regional competition. In authoritarian competitive involvement, multiple rival countries intervene simultaneously and oppositely to support opposing sides during a democratic transition, namely the old regime or the military and the political group leading the democratic transition, influencing their behavior and preferences. Therefore, rather than focusing on patron-client interaction, I study the web of interactions among different external and domestic actors.
Drawing on evidence from the democratic transitions in Egypt (2011-2013) and Sudan (2019-2021), I develop a theoretical framework for this type of international involvement. I argue that a counterrevolution and a democratic breakdown are more likely in a situation of competitive authoritarian involvement for two reasons. First, regional competition boosts the level and nature of the patron’s support to the old regime. This unconstrained and unconditional support enhances its repressive capacity, reduces the cost of repression, and hardens its negotiating position. Secondly, competitive involvement increases the threat perception of both other opposition factions and the military. This creates an extremely polarized environment in which growing inter-elite distrust and anti-democratic preferences can de-mobilize the opposition and further lower the costs of repression. In cases of typical authoritarian support not characterized by competition, the military is more likely to accept a power sharing agreement and thus counterrevolution attempts are less likely to succeed. To investigate that claim, the paper leverages a controlled comparative analysis and draws extensively on Arabic language primary sources, including newspaper reports and articles, TV clips and interviews, official statements, NGOs reports, international media, and secondary literature.
This paper advances the literature on the international dimension of democratization and authoritarianism by introducing a novel type of international involvement and by explaining variation in the effectiveness of foreign sponsorship on regime survival, a question that remains under examined in the literature. In addition, the paper supports the increasingly salient claim that polarization matters in the study of democratization and repression. It also contributes to that literature by introducing a new dynamic source for political polarization and state repression rooted in the international environment, which goes beyond the focus on stationary material and long-term factors.