by Aula Hariri
The Iraqi-born scholar Joseph Sassoon has published widely on the political and economic history of Iraq. His previous award-winning book, Saddam Hussein’s Baʿth Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, provided the first inside-account of the internal workings of the Ba’ath Party, utilising government archives captured by the US following its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sassoon’s interest in exploring the internal political dynamics of Arab republics is continued in his ambitious new book, Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics, where he seeks to deepen our understanding of the ‘anatomy’ of the ‘authoritarian and coercive systems’ (p.1) that prevailed in eight Arab republics – including Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, and Libya – over a period that spans from the 1952 Egyptian Revolution until the Tunisian uprising in 2011. With the exception of Iraq, the archives of the Arab republics are not available to researchers and so Sassoon’s study is based on an analysis of over 120 Arabic memoirs. To achieve a holistic view, the memoirs are drawn from individuals embedded within the political system – political leaders, ministers, generals, security agents and businessmen – as well as outsiders, namely political opponents and prisoners. Given the preponderance of available Egyptian memoirs, Egypt features heavily throughout the book.
The book opens with an insightful discussion about the use of political memoirs as sources for researching the Arab world (Chapter 1). Here Sassoon argues that hitherto neglected memoirs can provide a vital research tool for understanding the internal politics of the region. Although making a case for the importance of memoirs as sources of rich information, Sassoon also emphasises that researchers’ need to be aware of the ‘politics of remembering’ (p.12) which invariably shape how memoirs are written. In other words, scholarly use of memoirs needs to be accompanied by a critical awareness of how the practice of recounting events is shaped by the politics and circumstances of the author, as well as the time and place of publication. Notwithstanding these challenges, Sassoon maintains that memoirs provide an indispensable prism through which to analyse internal politics from the perspectives of the individuals who contributed to shaping its trajectory. Sassoon’s advocacy of the use of memoirs for studying local histories is a welcome call, and the impressive breadth of his sources – over 120 memoirs – is the major strength of this book.
Having persuasively made the case for the use of memoirs for political analysis, Sassoon then devotes the bulk of the book to a thematic exploration of the components of authoritarianism (Chapter 2–6) before closing with a discussion about the challenges involved in the transition from authoritarianism (Chapter 7). Authoritarianism is divided into five elements: the party system (Chapter 2), the military apparatus, (Chapter 3), the security services (Chapter 4), economic policy (Chapter 5), and leadership and the cult of personality (Chapter 6). Throughout his discussion, Sassoon highlights the common denominators across the Arab republics which include: centralised decision making sometimes accompanied by a personality cult, the use of coercion and networks of privilege to guarantee loyalty, the prioritisation of personal survival over economic affairs, and finally the politicisation of state institutions. Sassoon’s analysis is centred on two central arguments: First, the internal politics of the Arab republics share more similarities than previously thought, both amongst each other and in relation to authoritarian trends outside the region. Second, the role of coercive organisations – the security and military apparatus – have not fundamentally changed over the period under study. Underpinning these two arguments is an emphasis throughout that the economic and social problems that have plagued the Arab republics – namely unemployment and poverty – are primarily attributable to the quality of their leaderships and the authoritarian features of their internal politics.
Given the centrality of ‘authoritarianism’ in Sassoon’s study, it is puzzling that the author does not provide a specific definition of what the term implies and why – according to the author – it has been the dominating principle since the 1950s. The author’s interchangeable use of the associated terms ‘despotism’ and ‘tyranny’ further compounds this lack of clarity over the precise nature of the subject matter. The necessity for a clear conceptual framework for studying ‘authoritarianism’ is especially important given that Sassoon is using the term to characterise such a long period of Arab political history. Indeed, although the author recognises the changing political dynamics over the period, the reader is still left wondering whether it is really plausible to place, for example, Egypt’s Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak under the same broad conceptual umbrella of ‘authoritarianism’? Did the memoirists that Sassoon surveyed consistently view political leadership as ‘authoritarian’? By characterising over five decades of Arab political history under the overarching term ‘authoritarianism’, Sassoon’s study misses the opportunities to delve into the different dimensions of the internal political changes that have shaped the region since the 1950s.
The book’s lack of specificity regarding the concept of ‘authoritarianism’ is paralleled by its lack of historical contextualisation in discussing the rise and persistence of authoritarian politics. Sassoon takes the 1952 Free Officers Revolution in Egypt as a starting point to explore authoritarian dynamics in the region, and yet the prior imperial and colonial context features minimally in his study. Whilst Sassoon notes the imperial and colonial contexts from which the Arab republics emerged, this fact bears no analytical implications on his study. The role of colonial legacies and the continued external interference in internal politics is not sufficiently discussed. To overlook the causative impact of external powers on internal dynamics is particularly problematic given that, as Sassoon himself acknowledges (p.4), many Arab memoirs revolve around discussions of the role of external powers, especially the US or USSR. A consideration of the broader historical context within which internal politics operated is essential for understanding what Arab political leaders viewed to be their priorities at particular historical moments. For example, trying to understand why Egypt’s Nasser (1956-1970) or Iraq’s Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958-1963) did not view parliamentary democracy as a priority is impossible without historically contextualising their rise to power. Both Nasser and Qasim rose to power against the backdrop of a monarchic and parliamentary system that was dominated by British-backed elites. Seen from their historical vantage point, the priority was not to establish a democratic system per se but rather to fend off Britain’s pervasive imperial control over their countries and to dismantle some of its durable legacies. Equally, if one zooms forward to more recent history, one cannot understand the durability of Saddam Hussein’s Baʿath regime without a consideration of the role of US policy – be it in supporting Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), or in indirectly strengthening his hold through the US-supported UN sanctions regime. Similarly, the current political chaos in Iraq cannot be discussed without reference to the impact of the US-induced state collapse in the wake of the 2003 invasion and the subsequent post-war political settlement. The point here is not to attribute all political agency to external forces, but rather to recognise the indispensable role of external forces – throughout history and at present – in shaping the internal political dynamics of the Arab republics. A separation of international relations and internal politics does not do justice to the complexity of one of the most internationally penetrated regions in the world.
To sum up, Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics is an ambitious book which offers one possible historical narrative – filtered through the prism of ‘authoritarianism’ – of Arab political history.
Aula Hariri is Research Officer at the LSE Middle East Centre, currently working on the Historical Sociology of the Middle East. This research builds on her thesis which examined the role of the Iraqi Independence Movement on state formation in Iraq between 1914-1958.