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New Texts Out Now: Joseph Sassoon, Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics

[Cover of Joseph Sassoon, [Cover of Joseph Sassoon, "Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics"]

Joseph Sassoon, Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Joseph Sassoon (JS): While researching my previous book (Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime), which was based on the archives of the Ba‘th Party regime in Iraq (1968–2003), I kept asking whether the other Arab republics were similar to Iraq and to each other. Answering that question would ideally require examining the archives of other authoritarian Arab regimes. Unfortunately, these archives are inaccessible to researchers. Consequently, I turned to memoirs written by those who were embedded in the system: political leaders, ministers, generals, security agency chiefs, party members, and businessmen close to the center of power. I also examined memoirs of people who were on the outside: political opponents of these regimes and political prisoners. I hoped that a combination of the two groups—insiders and outsiders—would help us learn more about the coercive tyrannies of the Arab world in spite of being unable to tap into their closed archives.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JS: This book addresses a myriad of questions. How did the different regimes operate? What was the role of the ruling party in countries with a multi-party system, like Tunisia and Egypt? To what extent were repression and violence used, and how did the security services control opposition and co-opt other influential groups such as labor and student unions? How was the executive branch structured, and how were decisions made? Was Saddam Hussein’s personality cult similar to or different from that of Hafiz al-Asad in Syria or Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia? How did economic planning differ? And how did these regimes tackle their economic problems?

The book is thematic, rather than allocating a chapter to each republic. It does not intend to be a historical review of events, but zooms in on certain episodes and trends through the prism of memoirs. It begins in 1952 with the Egyptian Revolution and ends with the Arab uprisings of 2011, with a final chapter devoted to the difficult process of transition from authoritarianism that began after 2011.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JS: Unlike my previous two books on Iraq and the refugees, this book is mostly based on Arab political memoirs. My previous book on the Ba‘th Party was mostly based on the Iraqi archives (currently at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University). I realized that these memoirs were not used to the same extent by political historians of the Arab world than for example, those working on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe even though they have access to archives for these countries.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JS: I hope this book appeals to anyone interested in understanding why the Arab uprisings have faltered. Whether students of history, politics, or political economy, learning and understanding how these tyrannical systems operated for three to four decades are critical. In my opinion, lack of understanding of these regimes led to many faulty policy decisions. Furthermore, I strong believe that confronting the past will be an essential ingredient for the success of any transition.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JS: This book led me to think more of the violence, repression, and torture that so many in the Arab world suffered from. Some material is coming to light and I think it is critical to recognize the suffering of large segments of the population in many of these countries.

Excerpts from Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics

From Chapter Four: The Role of Security Services in the Arab Republics

In authoritarian regimes, in the Arab world or elsewhere, the role of the security services is remarkably similar and they have many characteristics in common. Above all, they constitute the apparatus for coercion and control by providing the rulers with information on political, economic, and social issues among the population. In fact, there are more similarities than once assumed, whether in single-party states such as Iraq and Syria, or in the so-called multi-party systems that existed in Egypt and Tunisia. In all these countries, security agencies were designed to overlap, and were so structured as to ensure that no one agency would become strong enough to threaten the regime. All the countries had on average four main agencies, plus a few others that were spin-offs created for specific purposes. The existence of a pervasive and oppressive internal security apparatus was well established. In Egypt, it began under Nasser and continued under Sadat and Mubarak. In Syria, the basis for security services that controlled all facets of life was laid during the union with Egypt (1958–61). As one memoir explains, by the late 1950s, two years after the union between Syria and Egypt, security chief ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Sarraj “was in control of all affairs in the Syrian Province from administrative, political, economic, and security aspects to the extent that never before had one Syrian [had] so much power.”[1] Similarly in Iraq, security services were beginning to take control of events and affect decision making in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the difference in later years was that leaders such as Hafiz al-Asad or Saddam Hussein developed and perfected the operations of these agencies to allow them to get rid of the leaders’ opponents and ensure their personal dominance to an extent not seen before.

One major study in several Arab countries focused on the structure of the Ministry of Interior as the vehicle for internal security, but rarely discussed the other, more secretive, organs. It is notable that while the Arab world balked at developing regional economic integration, there was considerable dialogue and cooperation between the different republics and kingdoms on matters of security and intelligence. In all these countries, the minister of interior was a powerful position; in Egypt after the 2011 revolution, for example, it was reported that the ministry had 1.4 million employees and an estimated 700,000 informants on the payroll.[2] Even official Egyptian statistics revealed the dramatic growth in the number of employees in state security and the police: an increase from about 500,000 in 1993 to more than 640,000 by 2012–13. These statistics did not include members of the armed forces, general intelligence and military intelligence, who were estimated at roughly another 600,000.


Recruitment of officers to these agencies was more similar than has been thought. Emphasis on loyalty was paramount, and the social origins of the candidate were a significant consideration. These agencies were built on paranoia and the belief that there was an enemy lurking behind every curtain. In a fascinating interview, a former senior Egyptian security officer refers to a conversation he had with Hasan Abu Basha, an ex-Minister of Interior, who described the ideal security officer: “Having favorable judgment of people and being content are two virtues for human beings, but grave sins in a state security officer. This is the principle of every agency.”[3] The training of security officers was comparable in all these countries. A senior Egyptian security officer, detailing the process of recruiting officers and their training, admitted that all officers were trained in beating, torture, and interrogation techniques of suspects, and this became a habit and “a fact of life” in these services rather than learning how to investigate properly to uncover the truth.[4] The use of torture is widespread among not only the security services in these countries but also among the local police forces. A senior Egyptian police officer and professor of law at the Police Academy ascribed the prevalence of physical intimidation to the genuine belief on the part of police officers that torturing a suspect is the most efficient way of obtaining a confession. He pointed out that many within the police force were lazy, wanted to hide their lack of investigative capabilities, and attributed the habit of debasing suspects to the gratification it gave officers to exercise such control over other human beings.


Prisoners’ memoirs are obviously insightful about the system of interrogation and everyday life in prisons. One of the most powerful was written by Mustafa Khalifa, a Syrian who endured thirteen years of imprisonment and torture. In his remarkable story, Al-Qawqa‘a (The Shell), he tells how he was arrested at Damascus airport on returning from six years of study in France. It took him almost three weeks of torture and beatings to discover that he was suspected of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Attempting to inform them that not only was he Catholic by birth, but actually an atheist, had no effect and in fact it made it worse for him, as his cellmates boycotted him after his declaration. From that time on, he suffered utter isolation as a kafir (unbeliever) and najs (impure).

As the days passed, a shell with two walls began to be created around me: one wall was shaped by their hatred of me; I felt I was swimming in a sea of hatred, rancor, and disgust. I tried hard not to sink in this sea. The second wall was created by my fear of them [the Muslim Brothers].[5]

This memoir is illuminating for our understanding of prison life, the regular torture and humiliation, the Syrian regime’s attitude toward religion in general and to the Muslim Brotherhood in particular; and finally, the impressive organization and discipline of the Muslim Brothers inside the prison and their ability to be creative and adapt to the harsh realities. The depiction of the Muslim Brothers and their suffering is given in another memoir written by a Syrian communist, Yasin al-Hajj Salih, who describes how Tadmur prison became the “natural home” for the Brothers. The torture, humiliation, courage and adaptability of prisoners are once again graphically described. Both memoirs recount how prisoners were subjected to the most infamous tool of torture in Syria: the dulab (tire), whereby the prisoner is placed inside a large tire and guards would beat his feet. It seems that each of the Arab republics was proud to develop its own particular brand of torture; in Tunisia, prisoners were turned on a “chicken rotisserie” while being interrogated. Another method of torture documented in a few countries was referred to as the ‘menu’: prisoners are offered a menu of grim styles of torture and the prisoner is forced to choose his own torture from this list which could contain extraction of fingernails, electric shocks, etc. An account by a survivor of the hell of Algeria’s prisons tells how, during the civil war in the 1990s, thousands of people were arrested and sentenced to execution, but were tortured for days beforehand “to extract every piece of information about their comrades.”[6] Sadly, as one person who was intimate with Syrian torture writes, it seems that simple words such as chair, ladder, electricity, and lock, began to mean for Arabs something different from their linguistic definitions; they became symbols of torture.

In a country such as Libya, torture was not motivated for political reasons only; even civil criminals were tortured as a matter of course. A Libyan attorney general paints a truly grim picture of the treatment of those detained, both criminal and political. When the Libyan police arrested someone suspected of forming a gang of robbers, they proceeded to tie him to a car and drag him along until he died. The peak of Qaddafi’s internal terror happened in Bu Slim prison and became known as the Bu Slim massacre, very comparable to the Tadmur prison massacre in Syria. Bu Slim became notorious for its treatment of prisoners, along the lines of the infamous prison in Iraq called Qasr al-Nihaya (The Palace of the End), and was known as ‘the last stop.’ Describing the Libyan prison, the novelist Hisham Matar quotes a smuggled letter from his father who was imprisoned after “disappearing” in Cairo: “The cruelty of this place far exceeds all that we have read of the fortress prison of Bastille. The cruelty is everything, but I remain stronger than their tactics of oppression.”[7]

The Bu Slim massacre took place in mid-1996, when mostly Islamist prisoners began a strike inside the prison. Fearing a mutiny that could expand beyond the walls of the prison, the authorities killed almost 1,400 prisoners. Before Qaddafi was toppled, they denied the incident or claimed that only a dozen inmates were killed after attacking the guards, even though Amnesty International wrote a report in 2006 calling for the need to investigate prison deaths. After the uprising, a mass grave of 1,270 bodies was found, and thought to be the remains of the inmates. ‘Abd al-Salam Jallud, who was Qaddafi’s co-member of the Revolutionary Council and a Prime Minister, recounts that in his last meeting with the Libyan leader in 1998 he raised the issue of the massacre. He says that he told Qaddafi: “The massacre of Bu Slim is the largest massacre since Hitler’s.” Qaddafi responded: “If I did not do this, they would have burnt Tripoli and burned you too.”[8] Even someone who was in the security services claims that they only heard rumors and it was impossible to discover the truth, and the massacre became a taboo subject. For many years afterwards, families continued to bring food and clothes to their loved ones, only to be taken by the guards as there was no one to deliver these parcels to.


[1] Nabil ‘Umar, Dhi’b al-Mukhabarat al-Asmar: Al-Bab al-Sirri li-Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser [The Brown Wolf of the Intelligence: The Secret Door to Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser] (Cairo: Dar al-Fursan, 2000), p. 80.

[2] Alistair Lyon, “Analysis—Egyptian Army Could Hold Key to Mubarak’s Fate,” Reuters, 28 January 2011. The estimate is based on leaked cables from US diplomats.

[3] Interview with Brigadier Hussein Hammuda, Al-Shuruq, 8 April 2011.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mustafa Khalifa, Al-Qawqa‘a: yawmiyyat mutalassis [The shell: the diary of a voyeur], 2nd edition, (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2010), p. 72.

[6] Lyes Laribi, Dans Les Geôles de Nezzar [In the dungeons of Nezzar], (Paris: Paris­–Méditerranée, 2002), p. 10.

[7] Hisham Matar, “The Return: A Father’s Disappearance, a Journey Home,” New Yorker, 8 April 2013.

[8] Ghassan Sharbal, Fi Khaymat al-Qaddafi: rifaq al-‘aqid yakshufun khabaya ‘ahdihi [In Qaddafi’s tent: the colonel’s comrades expose the mysteries of his era], (Beirut: Dar Riyad al-Rayyis, 2013), p. 52.

[Excerpted from Joseph Sassoon, Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics, by permission of the author. © 2016 Cambridge University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.] 

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