Research

Here is the most remarkable study to date on the Lebanese political system and its functioning since the end of the civil war and the Taif agreement (1989) … It reads like a thrilling detective story except it’s about real people being left without medical care and power, millions of dollars disappearing into private pockets, and a country going down the drain. — Elizabeth Picard on Spoils of Truce (Cornell University Press, 2012) in Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée

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Reinoud Leenders’ academic research on the Middle East spans a 30 years’ time period in which the region witnessed international and intra-state wars but also showed resilience, innovation and hope in seeking stability, peace and social justice. Leenders’ research combines intimate knowledge of and experience in the region through this period with comparative political science theory and the study of International Relations. It is aimed at contributing to the latter through case study research and theory building on a region that is still largely overlooked in the disciplinary study of politics. Leenders’ publications, whether in peer reviewed academic journals or by major academic publishing houses, cover a wide range of themes related to the study of economic reforms and post-war reconstruction, corruption and (authoritarian) governance, regional and transnational conflicts, refugees, social movement theory, and the politics of humanitarian aid; all of them are based on extensive fieldwork and experience. Many of his academic publications carry direct policy relevance and have informed policymakers, practitioners and activists in and outside the region

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“This volume illustrates the limits and complexities of current political change in the Middle East. It is a major contribution to contemporary debates about the resilience and adaptability of authoritarian rule, built on impressive empirical evidence and the systematic comparison of Iran and Syria.” – Eberhard Kienle (Research Professor, CNRS) on Middle East Authoritarianisms (Stanford University Press, 2013)

Publications

“Foreign Sponsorship of Pro-Government Militias Fighting Syria’s Insurgency: Whither Proxy Wars?”, Mediterranean Politics, online 24 November 2020 (co-authored with Antonio Giustozzi)

Exploring the role of foreign-sponsored pro-government militias in counter-insurgency efforts, this article shows how the proxy war concept maps onto the Syrian conflict as we demonstrate both its contributions and limitations. Drawing on rare access to Syrian and foreign security actors inside Syria, we argue that the Syrian war, while rightly labelled a proxy war, sits uneasily with and at times even contradicts a set of scholarly assumptions and emphases on proxy wars when looked at from a counter-insurgency perspective. 

“Timebomb at the Port: How Institutional Failure, Political Squabbling and Greed Set the Stage for Blowing up Beirut,” Arab Reform Initiative, 16 September 2020

The institutional set-up of the Port of Beirut is emblematic of Lebanon’s post-war corruption and sectarian clientelism. Any investigation into the 4 August 2020 explosion needs to take into account the port’s dismal institutional record and how the current political class ensured that its governance remained opaque and messy.

“Spoils of Oil? Assessing and Mitigating the Risks of Corruption in Lebanon’s Emerging Offshore Petroleum Sector,” in: Sami Atallah and Bassam Fattouh (eds), The Future of Petroleum in Lebanon. Energy, Politics and Economic Growth, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019)

What is the future of the oil and gas sector in Lebanon? Following the recent discovery of these valuable resources in the southern Mediterranean, the possibility of Lebanon also becoming a petroleum-producing country has been raised. This collection of essays addresses the major challenges and opportunities that accompany the country’s hope to join the petroleum club.

“Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime Maintenance in the Syrian War,” Political Science Quarterly 133 (2), 2018 (co-authored with Kholoud Mansour)

Through a case study of the Syrian crisis since 2011 this article explores how humanitarianism, state sovereignty and authoritarian regime maintenance have come to be closely intertwined. While the Syrian regime’s state sovereignty claims facilitated its tight control over a massive UN-led humanitarian aid effort, the latter in turn became a platform to project and magnify these claims, and to get them confirmed. The article details how the Syrian regime’s injection of its state sovereignty claims into a large-scale humanitarian aid effort gave it access to critical benefits and resources that fed into its efforts of authoritarian regime maintenance at times of acute threats to its survival.

“The Onset of the Syrian Uprising and the Origins of Violence,” in: Vicky Randall and Lise Rakner (eds), Politics in the Developing World, (Oxford University Press, 5th edition, 2017)

This chapter was written for Randall and Rakner’s well-known textbook on politics in the developing world with the aim to analyse popular mobilization in Syria in all its multifarious manifestations and mutations in time in order to better understand how, when and why people in specific settings, such as Syria’s, resist authoritarian rule, revolt, and sustain their challenge against injustice and oppression through both violent and non-violent means. The chapter argues that social movement theory can help us in an effort to better understand such processes in our case study of the Syrian uprising against the background of the country’s five decades of stiff authoritarian rule.

“Arab Regimes’ International Linkages and Authoritarian Learning: Toward an Ethnography of Counter-Revolutionary Bricolage,” Memo prepared for workshop “International Diffusion and Cooperation of Authoritarian Regimes,” GIGA, Hamburg, 8-9 June 2016. Project on Middle East Political Science (George Washington University)

This memo argues that it is time that we stand hypotheses about “international linkages and democratization” on their head and ask whether and how the scope and density of their international linkages since the uprisings of 2010-11 helped Arab authoritarian incumbents in their counter-revolutionary strategies and efforts at regime maintenance.

“Master Frames of the Syrian Conflict: Early Violence and Sectarian Response Revisited,” Memo prepared for workshop “From Mobilization to Counter-Revolution: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective,” Oxford University, 4 May 2016. Project on Middle East Political Science (George Washington University)

Five years into the Syrian conflict competing master frames have proven to be as powerful as they are inadequate, incomplete or outright inaccurate. Nothing seems to illustrate this better when it comes to assessing the onset of sectarian contention, early anti-regime (‘terrorist’ or ‘revolutionary’) violence, and the connections between them.

“The First Time as Tragedy, The Second as Farce? Lebanon’s Nascent Petroleum Sector and the Risks of Corruption,” Mediterranean Politics, 21 (2), 2016

This article analyses the risks of corruption in Lebanon’s nascent governance structures established in preparation for a thriving petroleum sector. Engaging with comparative theory on the ‘oil curse’, the article assesses the risks of corruption in the institutional and regulatory measures and policy tools that have thus far been developed down the sector’s value chain and including revenue management and expenditure. 

“Repression is Not a ‘Stupid Thing’ – Syrian Regime Responses to the Syrian Crisis,” in: Michael Kerr and Craig Larkin (eds), The ‘Alawis of Syria – War, Faith and Politics in the Levant, (Hurst Publishers, Oxford University Press U.S., 2015)

With Syrian regime violence against protestors and rebels reaching apocalyptic dimensions, the regime and its incumbents have been depicted as ‘irrational’, incompetent, and lacking the finesse to save their own skin. This chapter argues that authoritarian governance and repression has not been a ‘stupid thing’; on the contrary, and moral considerations and judgments set aside, the Syrian regime’s responses to the uprising suggest that it is ‘in-touch’, calculative, ‘rational’, and learning –if by trial and error, and surely without necessarily quelling the uprising.

“Authoritarian Learning and Counter-Revolution,” in: Marc Lynch (ed), The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East, (Columbia University Press, 2014), (co-authored with Steven Heydemann)

The Arab uprisings pose stark challenges to the political science of the Middle East, which for decades had focused upon the resilience of entrenched authoritarianism, the relative weakness of civil society, and what seemed to be the largely contained diffusion of new norms and ideas through new information technologies. Against this background, leading scholars in the field take a sharp look at the causes, dynamics, and effects of the Arab uprisings.

“How the Syrian Regime Outsmarted Its Enemies,” Current History, 112 (758), December 2013

Do dictators learn to remain in power? The Assad government watched how uprisings unfolded in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, took stock of international reactions to these events, and, in response, developed strategies to maximize its probabilities of survival.

Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran, (co-edited with Steven Heydemann), (Stanford University Press, 2013)

This volume considers the Syrian and Iranian regimes—what they have in common and what distinguishes them. Too frequently, authoritarianism has been assumed to be a generic descriptor of the region and differences among regimes have been overlooked. But as the political trajectories of Middle Eastern states diverge in years ahead, with some perhaps consolidating democratic gains while others remaining under distinct and resilient forms of authoritarian rule, understanding variations in modes of authoritarian governance and the attributes that promote regime resilience becomes an increasingly urgent priority.

“Prosecuting Political Dissent: Courts and the Resilience of Authoritarianism in Baathist Syria,” in: Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders (eds), Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran, (Stanford University Press, 2013)

This chapter assesses the extent of and the reasons for the ‘judicialization’ of repression and authoritarian rule in Syria. Drawing on interviews with judges, lawyers and activists in Syria, in addition to mainly Arabic writings by and on those in Syria’s legal profession, it is explored how and why an authoritarian regime with no respect for the rule of law and enjoying wide discretionary powers would bother to organise and manage its repression via the use of courts.

“’Oh Buthaina, Oh Sha‘ban – the Hawrani is not Hungry, We want Freedom!’ Revolutionary Framing and Mobilization at the Onset of the Syrian Uprising,” in: Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel (eds), Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, (Stanford University Press, 2nd revised edition, 2013).

Before the 2011 uprisings, the Middle East and North Africa were frequently seen as a uniquely undemocratic region with little civic activism. The first edition of this volume, published at the start of the Arab Spring, challenged these views by revealing a region rich with social and political mobilizations. This fully revised second edition extends the earlier explorations of Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and adds new case studies on the uprisings in Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen. The case studies are inspired by social movement theory, but they also critique and expand the horizons of the theory’s classical concepts of political opportunity structures, collective action frames, mobilization structures, and repertoires of contention based on intensive fieldwork. 

“Social Movement Theory and the Onset of the Popular Uprising in Syria,” Arab Studies Quarterly, 35 (3), 2013

This article takes stock of an attempt to scrutinize the onset of the Syrian uprising with the help of some key analytical concepts derived from social movement theory, including “opportunity” and “threat,” “social networks,” “repertoires of contention,” “framing,” and “diffusion.” 

Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon, (Cornell University Press, October 2012)

In Spoils of Truce, Reinoud Leenders documents the extensive corruption that accompanied the reconstruction of Lebanon after the end of a decade and a half of civil war. With the signing of the Ta’if peace accord in 1989, the rebuilding of the country’s shattered physical infrastructure and the establishment of a functioning state apparatus became critical demands. Despite the urgent needs of its citizens, however, graft was rampant. Leenders describes the extent and nature of this corruption in key sectors of the Lebanese economy and government, including transportation, health care, energy, natural resources, construction, and social assistance programs.

Exploring in detail how corruption implicated senior policymakers and high-ranking public servants, Leenders offers a clear-eyed perspective on state institutions in the developing world. He also addresses the overriding role of the Syrian leadership’s interests in Lebanon and in particular its manipulation of the country’s internal differences. His qualitative and disaggregated approach to dissecting the politics of creating and reshaping state institutions complements the more typical quantitative methods used in the study of corruption. More broadly, Spoils of Truce will be uncomfortable reading for those who insist that power-sharing strategies in conflict management and resolution provide some sort of panacea for divided societies hoping to recover from armed conflict.

“Getting the ‘Ladder of Options’ Right: The Illusive and Real Security Fallout of the Iraqi Refugee Crisis,” in: John Calabrese and Jean-Luc Marret (eds), Transatlantic Cooperation on Protracted Displacement: Urgent Need and Unique Opportunity, (Middle East Institute / Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, 2012)

Over the last decade students of refugee affairs have been increasingly engaged with the question  when  and  why  refugees  are  militarized,  “manipulated”  for  militant  causes  or otherwise attracted to violent agendas. Therefore, it may be little surprising that appraisals of the Iraqi refugee crisis have, to some extent, been similarly “securitized” as some pointed at the risk of the Iraqi conflicts becoming contagious to the region via the massive influx of Iraqi refugees. This article explores these arguments in detail and finds that such appraisals should be assessed with a great deal of skepticism.

“Authoritarian Learning and Authoritarian Resilience: Regime Responses to the 'Arab Awakening',” Globalizations, 8 (5), 2011 (co-authored with Steven Heydemann)

The spread of protests throughout the Arab world can be viewed as the product of social learning by Arab citizens—a wave effect facilitated by the rapid diffusion of ideas, discourses, and practices from one country to another and their adaptation to local contexts. Yet it less commonly recognized that Arab regimes’ counter-revolutionary strategies have also been shaped by processes of learning and diffusion among regime elites, especially among those where protests began later in the sequence of events that constitute the Arab awakening.

 

“Strong States in A Troubled Region: Anatomies of a Middle Eastern Regional Conflict Formation,” Comparative Social Research, special issue on State Failure and Regional Security, 27, 2010

Over the last decade students of refugee affairs have been increasingly engaged with the question  when  and  why  refugees  are  militarized,  “manipulated”  for  militant  causes  or otherwise attracted to violent agendas. Therefore, it may be little surprising that appraisals of the Iraqi refugee crisis have, to some extent, been similarly “securitized” as some pointed at the risk of the Iraqi conflicts becoming contagious to the region via the massive influx of Iraqi refugees. This article explores these arguments in detail and finds that such appraisals should be assessed with a great deal of skepticism.

“Refugee Warriors or War Refugees? Iraqi Refugees’ Predicament in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon,” Mediterranean Politics, 14 (3), 2009

This essay attempts to disentangle a debate within the study of refugee crises and their security implications involving ‘refugee warriors’. It situates the debate in the context of the Iraqi refugee crisis and its purported and real manifestations in three main host countries: Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

“L’adieu aux armes: la politique des réfugiés irakiens et son impact sécuritaire sur la région,” Maghreb-Machrek, 198, Hiver, 2008

Une notion, développée et employée par les experts et professionnels de l’humanitaire, est celle de « réfugié combattant ». Surtout depuis la fin de la Guerre froide, nous dit-on, les réfugiés ont développé d’une manière croissante et alarmante des inclinations violentes qui, lorsque l’occasion se présente de s’organiser et de se mobiliser, se transforment en menace contre la sécurité de leurs pays hôtes, en causant de violents conflits « débordant » et entraînant des régions entières dans l’abîme. Vue à travers le prisme de la littérature sur les réfugiés combattants, la crise actuelle des réfugiés irakiens semble le candidat idéal pour devenir une menace pour la stabilité régionale.

“Iraqi Refugees in Syria: Causing a Spill-over of the Iraqi Conflict?,” Third World Quarterly, 29 (8), 2008

This article explores the implications of the Iraqi refugee crisis for Syria. Many policy makers, activists and analysts, sometimes inspired by the conflict repercussions of refugee crises witnessed elsewhere, have warned against the regional security impact of the Iraqi exodus and consequently speculated about a possible spillover of the armed conflicts in Iraq to its neighbours. Our main finding is that fears for a spillover of Iraq’s violence cannot be corroborated. The relative absence of refugee violence can be explained in reference to Iraqi refugees themselves. Given their specific demographic and social traits (including age composition, educational levels and professions, and to some extent religious affiliation), in addition to refugees’ sectarian segregation, an overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees are and remain victims of the violence in Iraq; they are unlikely to become its perpetrators abroad. In this sense the Iraqi refugee crisis constitutes a strong reminder that, in order to assess the propensity of violence among refugees and their purportedly contagious impact on their places of refuge, an understanding of the causes of their flight and their roles in the conflict they are fleeing is essential.

“’Regional Conflict Formations’: Is the Middle East Next?,” Third World Quarterly, 28 (5), 2007

As Iraq is plunging into civil war, politics and violence in the Middle East are increasingly perceived to be highly interconnected and entwined. This article offers an attempt to understand the nature and scope of this regional interconnectedness involving three of the region’s states—Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Its approach takes advantage of the work by scholars of other regions than the Middle East, more precisely those analysing the ‘new wars’ and ‘Regional Conflict Formations (rcfs) of primarily Central and West Africa and the Balkans.

“Au-delà du ‘pays des deux fleuves’: une configuration conflictuelle régionale ?,” Critique Internationale, 34, January-March 2007

Cet article propose un examen de la nature et de l’ampleur de ce système régional de relations à partir de l’étude de trois États : l’Irak, la Syrie et le Liban. L’analyse s’appuie sur les travaux de spécialistes d’autres régions que le Moyen-Orient, en particulier ceux qui portent sur les « nouvelles guerres » et les « configurations conflictuelles régionales » (CCR), principalement en Afrique centrale et de l’Ouest et dans les Balkans. Le but n’est toutefois pas d’appliquer ici sans nuance les notions de nouvelles guerres et de CCR au contexte moyen-oriental mais de montrer qu’à condition de résoudre ou du moins de reconnaître certains problèmes méthodologiques inhérents à cette démarche le modèle des CCR permet de progresser dans l’étude et la compréhension des multiples conflits dont cette région est le théâtre.

“The Sixth War: Israel’s Invasion of Lebanon”, Special Edition MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies, (leading editor), 6, Summer 2006

On 12 July 2006, Hizbullah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and Hizbullah leadership asked Israel for an exchange of prisoners. Instead of a proposal for negotiation – what Hizbullah leadership had expected – Israel delivered a morning raid on Hariri International Airport in Beirut the next day, followed in the afternoon by a raid on the Beirut-Damascus Highway. The raids, while initially partially damaging their targets, were equally symbolic: Israel had started a full-scale war on Lebanon, its infrastructure and its complex web of national and regional relationships and networks. The war lasted for 34 days, leaving behind not another “New Middle East”, as the American administration had hoped, but an even more volatile Middle East. This emergency special issue of the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies aims at putting together a range of analytical essays, grounded in thorough empirical and conceptually sound research and tackling different facets of the war. A number of journalists and scholars, young and of older generations alike, based in the region and abroad, trained in various academic disciplines and Middle Eastern languages, were invited to draw on their intimate knowledge and research experience to present their analyses of the “Sixth War”.

“How the Rebel Regained His Cause: Hizbullah & the Sixth Arab-Israeli War,” MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies, 6, Summer 2006

In 2003 a range of obstacles and constraining factors were about to push Hizbullah into the drowsy status of a “rebel without a cause”. Yet one month of fierce fighting and heavy destruction inflicted by Israeli bombardments now appears to have turned the tables in Hizbullah’s favour to the extent that the rebel seems to have regained his cause. This article explores the circumstances that helped causing this turnabout and investigates how the recent developments affected the ways in which Hizbullah views and presents itself in relation to Lebanon and the region at large.

“Lebanon’s Political Economy: After Syria, an Economic Ta’if?,” MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol 6, Summer 2006

Review essay on two recent publications on Lebanon’s political economy: Toufic K. Gaspard, A Political Economy of Lebanon, 1948-2002, The Limits of Laissez faire, Brill, Leiden-Boston 2004 & Samir Makdisi, The Lessons of Lebanon.The Economics of War and Development, I.B. Tauris, London-New York, 2004

“How UN Pressure on Hizballah Impedes Lebanese Reform,” Middle East Report, 23 May 2006

One can make two preliminary observations regarding the post-Syria epoch in Lebanon to date. First, Lebanon’s political status quo, shaped by the 1989 Ta’if accord that helped end the 1975-1990 civil war, is in need of major revision. Without such modifications, confessional rivalries will continue to hinder any effective government policy, let alone one anchored in a spirit of reform. Second, the European Union, led by France, and the United States are pushing in two directions at once. They support much-needed Lebanese political and economic reforms, while simultaneously pressing Resolution 1559’s demand that the armed wing of the Shiite Islamist party Hizballah lay down its weapons. Hizballah and its allies are thereby alienated from government programs they might otherwise support. The result is stalemate on all fronts.

“European Democratization Strategies in Lebanon and Syria,” in Ivo H. Daalder et.al. (eds), Crescent of Crisis: US-European Strategy for the Greater Middle East, (Brookings Inst. Press and the EU Institute for Security Studies, 2005), (co-authored with Eva Goes)
“Know Thy Enemy: Hizbollah, ‘Terrorism’ and the Politics of Perception,” Third World Quarterly, 26 (1), 2005, (co-authored with Mona Harb)

The labelling career of the Lebanese armed group and political party Hizbullah is an interesting case with which to investigate the epistemological consequences of the politics of naming. Having found itself since its inception in the mid-1980s on the receiving end of mainly US and Israeli policy makers’ and analysts’ scorn for being an archetypical terrorist organisation. This article suggests that both the labelling of Hizbullah as terrorist and, conversely, its identification as a ‘lebanonised’ political force that is about to make its conversion into an unarmed political party are misleading and incapable of grasping this organisation’s complexities. Our analysis shows that the variety of institutions Hizbullah has been carefully elaborating and readapting over the past two decades in Lebanon operate today as a holistic and integrated network which produce sets of values and meanings embedded in an interrelated religious and political framework – that of the wilayat al-faqih. These meanings are disseminated on a daily basis among Shi’a constituencies through the party’s institutionalised networks and serve to mobilise them into ‘the society of the Resistance’ (mujtamaa’ al-muqawama), which is the foundation of the hala al-islamiyya (Islamic sphere) in Lebanon.

“Nobody Having Too Much to Answer For: Laissez-Faire, Networks and Postwar Reconstruction in Lebanon,” in: Steven Heydemann (ed), Networks of Privilege in the Middle East, The Politics of Economic Reform Revisited, (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2004)

This volume explores the role of informal networks in the politics of Middle Eastern economic reform. The editor’s introduction demonstrates how network-based models overcome limitations in existing approaches to the politics of economic reform. The following chapters show how business-state networks in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan have affected privatization programs and the reform of fiscal policies. They help us understand patterns and variation in the organization and outcome of economic reform programs, including the opportunities that economic reforms offered for reorganizing networks of economic privilege across the Middle East.

“Public Means to Private Ends: State Building and Power in Post-War Lebanon,” in Eberhard Kienle (ed), Politics From Above, Politics from Below: The Middle East in the Age of Economic Reform, (Saqi Books, 2003)

Even today, economic liberalization is widely supposed to replace the tyranny of the state with the freedom of the individual and, therefore, the uniformity of politics from above with the liveliness and colour of politics from below. This book analyses developments in the Middle East, arriving at far less reassuring conclusions: that economic liberalization has failed to entail the continuous growth and widespread welfare gains expected by its proponents; and that by privileging privatization and crony capitalism over competitive but regulated markets and political reform, it has also failed to decentralize and democratize the allocation of resources, be they material or symbolic, to enable individuals to participate meaningfully in the production of social norms.

Lebanon: The Emerging Regional Financial Centre?, (University of Amsterdam, Research Center for International Political Economy, 1996), (co-authored with Bassam Fattouh)
The Struggle of The State and Civil Society in Egypt: Professional Organizations and Egypt’s Careful Steps Towards Democracy, (Middle East Research Associates, Amsterdam, 1996)

Reinoud Leenders

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