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Exploiting dissent: foreign military interventions in the Arab uprisings

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In the wake of the Arab uprisings, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen experienced military interventions following popular protests absent civil strife where citizens coalesced around common grievances. Why did external actors pursue military interventions during the Arab uprisings? What prompted such interventions? This article explicates the structural conditions underpinning external interventions during the MENA region’s largest pro-democracy wave. I posit the simultaneity of the protests within a given temporal setting produced a permissive strategic environment that created a window of opportunity for external actors to alter the balance of power to maintain competing spheres of influence. The cross-national comparison contributes novel case studies to the extant literature on foreign military interventions to illustrate how and why regional shocks structure interest and opportunity for states seeking to leverage geostrategic interests through military interventions.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

source: Clark and Regan (2016). A protest event is defined as a gathering of 50 or more people demanding action from the government. The target is the state or state policy

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  1. I adopt Robert Jervis’ conceptualization of a system as “a set of units or elements is interconnected so that changes in some elements or their relations produce changes in other parts of the system, and (b) the entire system exhibits properties and behaviors that are different from those of the parts.” (Jervis 1997, 6).

  2. On windows of opportunity and vulnerability, see Stephen Van Evera (1999), Causes of War: Power and the Roots of conflict (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

  3. Rivalry structure actors’ interests when actors regard each other as (a) competitors, (b) the source of actual or latent threats that pose some possibility of becoming militarized and (c) as enemies, see (Thompson 2001), 560).

  4. Arms sales from 1950–1980 totaled $41.064 billion, surpassing sales to Israel ($36.212 billion) over the same time period. See SIPRI Arms Transfers Total trend-indicator value dataset. Saudi Arabia was also the largest recipient of US military exports in arms and equipment during the height of the Cold War, totaling $23. 297 billion from 1950–1982 (Klare, 1984, 254).


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Thank author would like to thank the participants at the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) 2020 workshop and the participants at the Pardee School Seminar Series at Boston University. May Darwich, Adham Saouli, Kaija Schilde, Marc Lynch, Jayita Sarkar, Lisa Wadeen, Josh Shifrinson, David Patel, Mahesh Kara and Marsin Alshammary provided invaluable feedback on working drafts that strengthened the framing and scope of the paper. The author also thanks the journal’s editors and two anonymous reviewers for their close reading and feedback on the final draft.

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Correspondence to Shamiran Mako.

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Mako, S. Exploiting dissent: foreign military interventions in the Arab uprisings. Int Polit 59, 1139–1166 (2022).

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