From Bullets to Ballots: Transformations from Armed to Unarmed Political Activism

The ACRPS has published From Bullets to Ballots: Transformations from Armed to Unarmed Political Activism (480 pp.) by multiple authors and edited by Omar Ashour, a contributing author, in 13 chapters. The book was published in English in 2021 by Edinburgh University Press under the title Bullets to Ballots: Collective De-Radicalisation of Armed Movements.

Why does a given armed region decide to do away with and delegitimise political violence or terrorism? When does the leader of an armed revolt decide to transform the uprising into a nonviolent social movement? How does a radical militia turn into a reformist party? Why do these collective transformations from armed to peaceful activity occur at the behavioural, ideological, and organisational levels? What are the requirements for the initiation and continuation of these processes? These are the main questions this book deals with to analyse collective transformations from bullets to ballots.

The book begins with the testimony of two leaders of collective transformations from vastly different armed organisations. It comprises qualitative analyses by specialists on more than 20 cases in more than 15 states – some religious, some leftist, and others ethno-nationalist – at times of crisis, the outbreak of civil wars, peacebuilding, and counter-extremism and counterterrorism. The results no doubt contribute to research on democratic transition, ending civil wars, peacebuilding, combating violent extremism, and counterterrorism.

Collective de-radicalisation

In the first chapter, “Revisiting Collective De-Radicalisation: A Comparative Perspective”, Omar Ashour offers a broad analytical view of the phenomenon and definitions of its academic terminology, causal variables, and dynamics. He presents some of the most prominent empirical cases as well as a theoretical framework for collective transformation, discussing related terms used to approach and analyse the issue, and demonstrates how transformations and de-radicalisation impact democratic transition, national reconciliation, peacebuilding, civil-military relations, security sector reform, combatting and preventing extremism and armed rebellion, and counterterrorism.

Ronnie Kasrils, former South African Minister of Intelligence and a founder of Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), reflects on his experiences as a statesman and revolutionary guerrilla leader in the second chapter, “From Bullets to Ballots: Lessons from South Africa”. He analyses the challenges the ANC and its paramilitary wing faced during the transition to peaceful political activism. The third chapter, “El Gama’a El Islamiyya in Egypt: From Armed Confrontation to Political Action – A Testimony”, offers the account of a leader from the opposite end of the political spectrum and another part of the African continent: Osama Rushdi, former spokesman for the Egyptian El Gama’a El Islamiyya and former political adviser to the Building and Development Party. It comprises the author’s reflections on the various developments of the organisation’s ideology and structure, from student movement to jihadist group, as well as those related to the process of transformation into a political party and the delegitimization of political violence and terrorism.

Collective transformations of armed substate actors in Syria and Iraq

In chapter four, “From Arms to Talks: A Comparative Study of the Transformations of the Syrian Islamist Movements Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and Faylaq al-Sham”, Hamzah Mustafa explores the ideological, discursive, behavioural, and organisational transformations that three armed Islamist groups in Syria have undergone over nine years of war. Mustafa discusses a subject that has not been sufficiently addressed by the scholarship on transformations without deradicalization and behavioural and ideological developments in combat without disarmament, evaluating the strategic consequences and likely impacts as to the future of the Syrian Civil War. In chapter five, “The Mahdi Army in Iraq: The Struggle for Transformation”, Haider Saeed argues that this militia goes beyond the common pattern of the relationship between ideological Iraqi parties and their armed wings, focusing on the reasons for the militia’s transformations from 2003 to 2020.

Comparative collective transformations and de-radicalisation in Western Europe and South Asia

Gordon Clubb analyses the process of temporary deradicalization within the Irish Republican Army in the sixth chapter, “A Draw or a Defeat? How the IRA Transitioned from Bullets to Ballots”, arguing that the UK government’s counterterrorism strategy facilitated the rise of dynamics within the movement that effectively enabled the transition to peaceful activity. In the seventh chapter, “The ETA and the Armed Struggle in Basque Country (1959-2018)”, Nick Hutcheon examines the transformations of factions within the ETA movement and their departure from violent ethnonational separatism, arguing that Basque nationalist leftist political leaders are in part responsible for the movement’s dissolution.

Thomas Howard Johnson, in chapter eight titled “The Afghan Taliban and Peace Negotiations: Are the Taliban De-Radicalising?”, provides a critical analysis of the transformations of the Taliban, posing the timely question: have the Taliban renounced radicalism after all these years and the transformations they have undergone? Johnson focuses on the effect of leadership, foreign interactions, regional support, and democratisation on the Taliban’s transformations and discusses the resultant impacts on the movement’s participation in the Doha Peace Agreement with the United States under Qatari mediation.

From arms to peace: cases from Latin America and Africa

Aldo Marchesi investigates the transition of armed groups into political parties and social movements amid democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s in the Southern Cone of Latin America in chapter nine, titled “Transformations after ‘Defeats’: The Cases of the Tupamaros and the Armed Left in Latin America”, focusing on three variables considered to be inseparable from our understanding of the ways in which armed groups have succeeded in adjusting to new democratic regimes: leadership, state oppression, and the interactions and motivations within the democratisation process. In the tenth chapter, “Leaving the Weapons Without Losing the War: Understanding the Transformation of the FMLN”, Alberto Martín Álvarez illustrates the transformation of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador from an alliance of revolutionary insurgent groups into a political party, analysing the central transformations that occurred during the hostilities as indicative of the leadership (of the armed left), undercurrents (within the armed left), and changes in US policy toward the armed conflict (regional support and incentives).

In chapter eleven, “The African National Congress’s Path to Power (1990-1994)”, Thula Simpson analyses the decisive stage of the liberation struggle in South Africa beginning in September 1984, with the outbreak of the uprising against the apartheid regime in the major regions, exploring in detail the reason why there was a transition toward negotiations despite the capacity to use weapons. Simpson also examines issues including divisions within Spear of the Nation and clashes between the African National Congress and the nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. In chapter twelve, “Transformations in Ethiopia: From Armed Struggle to Politics of Coalitions”, Mehari Taddele Maru explores the transition of Ethiopian armed groups into a ruling political coalition. He provides an overview of the military victory over the previous regime, the transformation of the coalition partners from guerrilla warlords into statesmen, and the challenges of the transition to peaceful politics, and democracy more broadly, in Ethiopia.

Lastly, Omar Ashour concludes the volume with chapter thirteen, “Transformations of Armed Nonstate Actors: Enduring Challenges and Strategic Implications”. The results are presented as an explanatory framework to interpret and strengthen collective de-radicalisation and transitions toward peaceful action based on the cases under analysis. Thus, the book contributes to reviewing our understanding of collective de-radicalisation and offers new ideas on how armed groups transition to peaceful action, the reasons such transitions occur, as well as how they can be sustained in the future.

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