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Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?
Joseph Sassoon: The Ba‘th Party documents provide a treasure trove that allows us to understand how authoritarian regimes function and how the Iraqi system was sustained for thirty-five years in spite of wars and sanctions. I was intrigued by the ability to delve into those primary sources to find out how the different organs of the regime operated. For example, among the collection, there are almost two thousand files of the Special Security Organization (jihaz al-amn al-khas), which was, in effect, the security service that watched the other security services and the senior officials and army officers. This organization, headed by Saddam Hussein’s second son, Qusay, kept files on every senior official and all those close to the President or those who worked in the presidential palaces. By examining those files, we can come to understand how regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s in the past, or the Syrian regime in the present, function. Controlling the population took many forms and the book looks at how the system operated.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
JS: The book examines how the Ba‘th Party dominated life in Iraq. By analyzing the party structure, the book looks at the party’s relationship with the security agencies, the army, and the civil population. The party’s organization was remarkable: a centralized system with branches in every city, town, and village that allowed the regime to control society. The durability of the regime was based not only on fear; an extensive system of rewards created enough incentives to attract large numbers of party supporters. In essence, the regime was very generous to its supporters and their families. Given the hierarchical nature of the party, the rewards correlated to the level of the services rendered to sustain the regime. Medals and rewards were part and parcel of the system. The most coveted medal or identity card, however, was called “Identity Card of the Friends of Mr. President Leader Saddam Hussein, May God Protect him.” The front of the card displayed the holder’s personal details, but intriguingly, the back featured a headline called imtiyazat (privileges), followed by seven items, among them: adding five points to the average of all examinations taken by the supporter or his family; meeting with the president once a year; and, last but not least, two summer suits and two winter suits, to be given to each supporter annually as a gift from the president.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JS: I hope that anyone interested in understanding how the regimes of Syria and Libya operate and control their societies will read this book. This is the first time that we see official documents of a modern Arab state, which allows us to analyze the mechanism of authoritarian regimes.
J: What might this book offer to readers trying to understand the recent history of Iraq in light of the events of the past decade?
JS: One of the difficult issues that Iraq is currently facing is sectarianism. There are a number of issues that become very clear: sectarianism existed during the Saddam Hussein regime, but not in the intensity that we became aware of after the American invasion. In spite of the repression of the Shiʻis that took place during the 1991 uprising and afterwards, the system was actually not built on sectarianism. For example, the Baʻth Party was obsessed about forms and gathering information. Yet, interestingly, almost no form asked the question whether the applicant is a Sunni or a Shiʻi. Furthermore, in the audiotapes of the meetings of the Revolutionary Council, there were never a direct discussion of sects and sectarianism. One has to remember that there were Shiʻis who served the regime at all levels, whether in the Party or the security services. For Saddam Hussein, the most critical element was total and utter loyalty to him rather than religion or sect. Unfortunately, that changed dramatically after the invasion, as sectarianism became more important than other forms of associations.
We also come to understand that after a number of decades, authoritarian regimes might disappear, but their legacies endure. One of the legacies of authoritarian regimes, be it in Iraq under Saddam Hussein or in Syria under the Assads, is the harm they cause to social relations by normalizing violence, fostering mutual suspicion, and creating a state of paranoia even among friends and family members. Nine years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, we witness more violence and terror, which, unfortunately, was exacerbated by an invasion and an occupation.
Excerpt from Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime
The uniqueness of the Ba‘th regime is that in spite of the turbulent path it followed for thirty-five years it managed to survive against all odds. This book reveals how the Ba‘th Party systematically penetrated every stratum of society and built an impressive political machine more powerful than any other group in Iraq, which drew large numbers of people into its sphere of influence. While using extreme violence and terror against its citizens, the regime created a notable parallel system of rewards for its supporters and succeeded in underscoring the necessity and importance of universal support. Another distinctive characteristic was flexibility; Saddam Hussein did not hesitate to change a policy even if it meant a complete reversal of his declared beliefs and actions. He did so in regard to tribalism, religion, and the status of women, and this trait was both his strength and his weakness.
In Iraq, the party was one of three pillars of government, together with the military and the bureaucracy, but it was the most important. This differed from the contemporaneous Ba‘th regime in Syria, where the army was far more central because of the military background of the party’s leaders. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein deliberately weakened the military as part of his coup-proofing, and the party became the essential core of the political system’s command and control. The ideological domination of the armed forces began immediately after the party seized power on July 30, 1968, and the party machinery soon operated in all military ranks. Historically, Iraq had developed a competent civil service that managed day-to-day administration, although the party slowly but surely crept into this bureaucracy and succeeded in bending it to serve its own political ends. Remarkably, the state bureaucracy continued to function during the decades of instability, even though the senior management of every ministry fell into the hands of Ba‘thists. By the early 1980s, bolstered by his personality cult, Saddam Hussein had become the final decision maker on almost every important issue. Although the presidential diwan became a center for processing data before decisions were made, the party stayed involved at all levels and orchestrated the execution of major decisions made by Saddam Hussein and the RCC.
Yet the centralization of power and Saddam Hussein’s dominating personality cannot on their own explain the regime’s durability. Its underlying strength was derived from the remarkable symbiosis that developed between the leader and the party, which kept the regime functioning in spite of its several disastrous decisions. Saddam Hussein was very shrewd at manipulating the rivalries between different blocs of the Ba‘th while concentrating state power in his own hands. But he saw the need for a central narrative that could unify as well as control the population, and for an apparatus to create a personality cult that would elevate him to untouchable status. Thus, failures were always blamed on others, never on the president, and even by 2003 there were no signs of a fundamental change in the regime’s potency or influence.
[Excerpted from Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime. © Joseph Sassoon 2012. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]
Joseph Sassoon will be speaking about Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime on Tuesday, January 24 at 6pm at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. For more information on this event, click here.
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