An ACRPS academic symposium on the transformation from armed to unarmed political action began today, 3 November, in Doha. The first of its kind in the Arab region, this international gathering brings together scholars, politicians, and ex-combatants from four different continents to discuss the transition to peaceful political activity.

Kicking off the day’s proceedings, Dr. Azmi Bishara offered his own observations on the topic. He noted that the subject area had been tainted by the “War on Terror” discourse and the subsequent media and policy treatment. He noted that the state claims a monopoly on legitimate violence, which dictates the definition of terrorism, as terrorists are labelled according to the identity of the perpetrator rather than the victim. This has impeded critical research of the topic and made it subject to political agendas. Dr. Bishara also stressed that those who pursue justice are not necessarily the ‘good guys’ and those who fight for a colonial state or an authoritarian regime are not in essence the ‘bad guys’. Even those pursuing a just cause can make mistakes and be corrupted. 

Bishara also insisted that while objectivity should always be pursued in social sciences, this does not necessarily mean neutrality. It is natural that a researcher that is invested in this transition to peace is searching for a way to enhance and consolidate it. Finally, Bishara asked how those pursuing peaceful political action come to carry arms. Experience has shown that armed movements cannot produce any real achievements in confronting a ruling regime. He concludes by stressing that although a despotic authoritarian regime may be seen by a weary public to offer an answer to chaos and violence, this will never last because physical and psychological humiliation can never be an acceptable sacrifice in the name of stability.

Dr. Omar Ashour, the director of the critical security studies program at the Doha Institute and coordinator of the symposium, followed Dr. Bishara. He laid out the academic objectives behind the event and the most important theoretical and practical questions that should be asked regarding the transformation from armed to unarmed political activism. The symposium seeks to answer some pressing questions regarding the transition to unarmed political activism. Why and how did the transformation occur? What are the conditions for success? What are the conditions for a durable transition? How is political violence de-legitimized and a new message marketed? How do we actually measure success? How is it possible to positively influence official policy to help militants lay down arms and transition to peaceful action?

The ACRPS was honored to host many guest speakers from around the world with many offering their practical experience on the transition to nonviolent action, including a special lecture from Frank Pearl. Pearl initiated the secret contacts that led to the peace processes with FARC and ELN in Colombia. He acted as a member of the Colombian government´s team that achieved the peace agreement with FARC and was Lead Negotiator with the ELN guerrilla in the secret phase. With profound first-hand insight on the peace process, Pearl shared his observation that you cannot expect to trust your counterpart and vice versa after such a long and tumultuous history. However, both parties have to trust the process. You can understand your opponent’s perspective and be compassionate without justifying their actions, he asserted.

Pearl confessed that he had expected political and technical challenges to face in his attempts to broker peace agreements. But what he found was more of a personal and spiritual challenge; he had to question his own values and convictions. This peace process divided the country, with those against the process retaining legitimate concerns. The justice issue is the most difficult, especially in a country that has been exposed to so much violence. Questions surface such as: Justice for whom? For what? Justice towards the past or towards the future? Ultimately, a system was chosen in which victims would be at the center of the agreement. Pearl went on to say: “Different groups must be prepared as we don't always recognize our fear- and that fear leads to rage. We oftentimes confuse wanting peace for wanting justice and confuse wanting justice for wanting revenge. So what is really necessary, at times, is a change of mentality.”

The first session of the day focused on cases from the Middle East. Khalil El Anani presented his paper: “Transformations of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: The Debate on the Relationship between Repression and Violence and Revisions”. Anani’s study attempted to avoid classical interpretations of the relationship between repression and violence and search instead for the reasons behind the difference in strategies relied upon to confront repression. He was followed by Haider Saeed, who spoke about “Jaysh Al Mahdi as a Post-Political Party Phenomenon”. He described Jaysh Al Mahdi, an armed force representing a group of Shi’i clerics, as representing a marked change in an Iraqi political culture previously characterized by armed wings subordinate to political parties and a widespread coup d’etat model of politics.  Hamzeh Almoustafa rounded off the panel, with his study, “From Arms to Negotiations: A Comparative Study of the Transformations of the Syrian Islamist Movements Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Sham”. His paper unpacks the changes in discourse, behavior and structure implemented by these movements as they sought to expand their social base and to assume a central political position.

The second panel looked at European experiences of armed movements. Gordon Clubb spoke first on his study, “A Draw or a Defeat? How the IRA Transitioned from Arms to Peace”, analyzing the interplay between structure and agency in the period before the Good Friday Agreement and afterwards. Clubb explained that in order to convince members of the group to move away from violence, the IRA had to maintain narrative fidelity by amplifying the 1960s Civil Rights issues which resonated with the generation. Nick Hutcheon followed this with his intervention, “Transformations after Defeats? The Case of ETA in Spain”, which looks at the transition of the Basque terrorist group ETA between 1959 and its formal disbandment in 2018. His paper explains this transition with a multi-level approach that combines individual, organizational and contextual data. Murat Yeşiltaş concluded the session with his paper, “When Politics is not Enough? Understanding the Failure of the PKK’s Transition from Armed to Unarmed Political Activism”. He explored the nature of the identity-security-politics nexus in the case of the PKK and detailed 4 driving factors for the failure of transition from armed to unarmed political activism: (1) nature of the organization (2) the security environment in which the armed organization actively operates 3) perceived space of opportunity to transform the organization itself to become successful in its historical objectives (4) external support that can help to maintain the survival of the organization in a competitive environment.

In the final panel, moderated by Dana El Kurd, speakers discussed cases from Latin America and The Caribbean. Aldo Marchesi presented a paper titled ”Transformations after Defeat: the Cases of Tupamaros in Uruguay and the Armed Left in Chile and Argentina,” focusing on the different models adopted by these two countries in reintegrating former guerrilla forces and how these promoted or limited prospects for transition to democratic political action. This was followed by María Jimena Duzán’s ”Political Reintegration of Demobilized Combatants in Colombia,” which discussed the transformation of FARC from one of the world’s largest guerrilla movements into a political party then decisively defeated only months later at the ballot-box. Santiago Pérez then shared some insights on the process by which the Cuban armed movement reshaped itself into a sustainable state after victory in his paper ”From a Revolutionary Movement to a Revolutionary State: The Case of Cuba.” The panel was rounded off by Roberto Cajina’s ”The Changing Ethos of the Nicaraguan Military: Three Stages and Three Different Identities,” highlighting the various shifts undergone by the Nicaraguan army’s institutional culture in the course of tumultuous political events.