The fourth annual ACRPS Conference on Democratic Transition was held on 12-13 September, 2015, in Tunis, on the topic of "Violence and Politics in Contemporary Arab Societies”. The two days conference allowed scholars to concentrate on some of the structural factors that create violence in present-day Arab societies. Participants at the meeting focused on the institutional violence of tyrannical regimes, and their use of violence in order to quell popular unrest resulting from corruption, tyranny and the lack of social justice.

The conference was opened on Saturday, September 12, 2015 by Dr. Mehdi Mabrouk, the Director of the Tunis office of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. The opening ceremony was well attended by dignitaries from Tunisia, the rest of the Arab world and beyond. When addressing the audience, Dr. Mabrouk made clear that the focus on the questions of violence and politics was a result of the way in which violence imposed itself on the research agenda of the Arab academy, due to the unprecedented violence resulting from the Arab revolutions. This raised the question, said Mabrouk, of whether there was a relationship between violence and politics.

Following Mabrouk, ACRPS Research Division Head Jamal Barout spoke on behalf of the General Director, Dr. Azmi Bishara. Barout placed this latest conference, hosted in Tunisia, in the context of the three previous meetings within the Democratic Transition series which focused on: Islamists and the Democratic Transition (Doha, 2012); Citizenship, Nation and State (Doha, 2013); and Sectarianism and the Formation of Minorities in the Greater Arab Levant (Dead Sea, Jordan, 2014). Barout went on to explain that the sponsorship of these and similar, regular meetings by the ACRPS was born of the Center’s commitment to understanding the phenomena presently transforming the Arab region. Alongside the dedication to the academic understanding of these transformations, the ACRPS is also committed to the ideal that the highest aspiration of the academic disciplines in the social sciences and humanities is the freedom of humanity.

Keynote speeches

Following the introductory comments by Dr. Mehdi Mabrouk, the Director of the Tunis office of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, and ACRPS Research Division Head Jamal Barout, two keynote speakers took the floor. The first address was delivered by Dr. Mounir Kashu, in which he addressed the problems of controlling violence in recently formed states and in the midst of democratic transitions. Kashu’s lecture examined the means through which the modern nation state sought to control societal violence through a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force. After explaining how this principle was practiced by European nation states, which used violence both to quell domestic opposition and to fend off foreign enemies, Kashu went on to explain how states presently in the midst of a democratic transition needed to balance the need to preserve law and order with the need to enfranchise a greater part of their population.

The second keynote address was delivered by Iraqi-British researcher and author Faleh Abdul Jabbar, a specialist in political sociology whose work focuses on the emergence of the modern nation state and violence within it. According to Jabbar, the universality of violence across all human societies was evidence that violence was an intrinsic part of the human experience. This did not, said Jabbar, prevent diversity in the forms which this violence took: these ranged from wars and sectarian conflicts to suicide. The speaker then went on to state that his speech and his participation at the meeting would focus on the violence visited by the state on groups of people.

According to Jabbar, modern-day Arab nation states needed to accept the dichotomy which exists between coercion and the satisfaction of citizens. Jabbar also pointed out how the protest movements in various Arab countries—such as Libya and Syria—failed to achieve their aims. In other states, such as Tunisia and Yemen, protest movements did succeed in implementing some of their demands but this might be due, says Jabbar, to the relatively limited (in the case of Tunisia, almost non-existent) extent of ethnic or sectarian diversity within those countries. In other words, the high level of homogeneity within the Tunisian population prevented social strife, whereas the tribal fragmentation of other Arab societies fanned the flames of violence.

Looking forward, Jabbar made clear that the only means through which violence within Arab societies could decisively be brought to an end would be for political freedoms to be rolled out within Arab states, including freedom of association, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.

Following the two keynote speeches, participants at the meeting divided into two separate, parallel streams for the sessions that lasted over two days. The 30 individual research papers presented covered such topics as “Political Violence in Contemporary Arab Settings: Case Studies from Sudan”; “Violence and Identity”; and “Examples of State Violence: Torture and the Accountability of Perpetrators”.

No outright solution

Addressing the audience during the second day of the conference, Moroccan scholar Rachid Charit described the situation in his own country as one that was completely unique, due to the complex mosaic within the North African kingdom that saw violence deployed universally by political partisans of all persuasions as well as the state itself. According to Charit, political violence in Morocco was no longer merely a tactic for short-term gain, but rather a complete political language through which the actors were socialized.

Addressing more specific, immediate and prosaic concerns, Dr. Mohammed Saleh Mawla also spoke on the second day of the conference where he presented a paper titled

“On Beheadings and Throat Slitting: How Could They? A Critical Analytical Approach”. Through it, Mawla examined some of the more recent developments in the employment of political violence in the Arab world, and concluded, with the weight of history, that the aim of stamping out the illegitimate use of violence was simply unfeasible. Instead, other means of containing violence needed to be found.

This was the main conclusion of a closing roundtable discussion, which brought the conference to a close. Dr. Mahdi Mabrouk, who chaired that roundtable discussion, began by posing a number of questions to the participants: how do we overcome the latest wave of violence presently overtaking the Arab region? Is the limited and regulated violence of the nation state necessary for the achievement of a modicum of societal stability?

Many of the participants who took part in the roundtable discussion seemed to disagree. Pointing out that the level of violence which the Arab countries are presently witness to remains reasonable, given the transformations, they viewed the Arab revolutions presently underway as the harbingers of a new social order which would provide safety and stability for Arab citizens. They also affirmed the importance of introducing the values of non-violence at the individual level, and at the first stages of socialization: only with educational curricula and school environments free of violence would the aim of reduced violence in the Arab region be achieved.