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Strategic Papers 13 August, 2020

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

Keyword

Omar Ashour

Associate Professor of Security and Strategic Studies in the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and Founding Director of the Critical Security Studies Graduate Program and the Director of the Strategic Studies Unit at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies. His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, insurgencies, state and non-state combat effectiveness, and democratization. He is the author of forthcoming book How ISIS Fights: Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt and previously taught at the University of Exeter (UK) and at McGill University (Canada). He has served as a senior consultant for the United Nations on security sector reform, counterterrorism, and deradicalization issues.

Introduction

Transformations from armed to unarmed political activism remains a global phenomenon, understudied in the Arab World and elsewhere.[1] Accordingly, the Strategic Studies Unit (SSU) of the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) organised its first annual conference entitled “From Bullets to Ballots: Transformations from Armed to Unarmed Political Activism” on 3-4 November 2018. The conference qualitatively examined a sample of 26 cases of armed organisations transforming into political parties or nonviolent social movements. These cases hail from four continents, covering the Arab World, Western and Southern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Academic experts, former government officials and organisational leaders discussed transformation experiences from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, Ethiopia, South Africa, Afghanistan, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Cuba, and others. The organizations included were inspired by ideologies ranging from the religious to leftist to ethno-nationalist and nationalist. The conference was the first of its kind in the Arab World and will be followed by the first Arabic academic book analysing transformations from armed to unarmed movements with a comparative, scholarly approach and proffering policy implications and recommendations.

The 26 case-studies discussed across 20 countries represent a carefully selected sample of a larger global phenomenon.[2] One quantitative study demonstrated that among 268 identified armed groups that operated between 1968 and 2006, only 20 (7%) were defeated militarily.[3] In contrast, 114 (43%) joined the political mainstream, either as political parties or socio-political movements. Policing, intelligence and public backlashes were responsible for dismantling 107 (40%) organizations, the majority of them small ones.[4] For larger groups (especially those with over 1,000 members), by far the most common trajectory was a conversion to unarmed political or social activism.[5] Smaller datasets have produced similar results. Of 133 armed groups fighting against regimes of different types between 1990 and 2009, 54.8% transformed into political parties in about 50 countries across the globe.[6] However, as discussed in the conclusion, the available datasets in the literature need thorough revisions and updates.

How does such transformation happen? Why does it happen? What are the conditions for initiating the transformation? And what are the conditions for sustaining it? What are the different trajectories of moving away from armed action? Does the transformation happen after a military victory, a military defeat, or a draw in an armed conflict between an insurgent group(s) and an incumbent authority(ies)? These are the main research questions that the conference and the forthcoming book[7] – based on the conference – will engage with to explain transformations from armed to unarmed political activism.

This Strategic Paper provides an analytical overview of the phenomenon, its defining terms, causal variables, dynamic trajectories, selected empirical cases and policy implications and recommendations. These implications and recommendations are also relevant to democratisation, peacebuilding, civil-military relations, countering and preventing violent extremism, and countering terrorism.[8] The Strategic Paper is composed of four other sections. The following section briefly outlines a theoretical framework for the transformations. It defines the relevant terminology and methods when approaching the topic. The third section discusses some of the most salient case-studies of collective transformations form armed to unarmed political activism. The last two sections provide some scholastic observations for future research agendas, as well as policy implications and recommendations.



[1] Azmi Bishara, “Opening Remarks for the Conference titled Bullets to Ballots: Transformations from Armed to Unarmed Political Action,” The Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, 3/11/2018, accessed on 11/12/2018, at: https://bit.ly/2QjcCFG

[2] Despite its cross-regional nature, this sample is incomprehensive. It neither included North American nor Australian cases of transformations, such as the factional and individual cases from the Black Panthers Organisation in the United States (especially the Illinois Chapter) and Le Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) in Canada.

[3] That is by exclusive military means. See for example: Seth G. Jones & Martin C. Libicki, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ ida, (Santa Monica: RAND Publications, 2008), p. 19.

[4] Ibid, pp. 141-185. The numbers are less than 200 members.

[5] Omar Ashour, The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 12-18. 

[6] Carrie Manning and Ian Smith. “Political Party Formation by Former Armed Opposition Groups after Civil War.” Democratization, vol. 23, no. 6 (September 2016), p. 973.

[7] Omar Ashour (ed.), Bullets to Ballots: Collective De-Radicalization of Armed Movements. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2021).

[8] See: The United Nations, “Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism,” Report of the Secretary-General, 24/12/2015, accessed on 11/12/2018, at: https://bit.ly/1n0F1wu.

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