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Opening Remarks for the Symposium “Bullets to Ballots: Transformations form Armed to Unarmed Political Action”


Azmi Bishara

The topic at hand is one that needs no introduction. It is a crucial topic that occupies public opinion and public policy in many countries. Its complexity requires a systematic, integrated and multi-dimensional approach within the disciplines of political science, sociology and contemporary history. It has, of course, its fair share of historical examples that can be defined and measured from South Africa all the way to Latin America.

Arab countries do not fall outside the scope of this phenomenon — there will be papers in this symposium addressing Arab experiences. It is an urgent issue for Arab societies, especially given the current historical context. New research on the topic will thus enjoy a great deal of interest from the ACRPS’ programs and research projects, since it places the study of democratic transformation at the heart of its work, and seeks to derive solutions from concrete historical experience to construct a theoretical, interpretive and instructive framework that is not derived from ready-made lessons.

I do not want to elaborate further on the importance of the topic now — that is the concern of the symposium. I will instead make some observations regarding the methodology that require further discussion.


First Observation:

This topic has suffered much as a subject of research because it has been approached since the early 2000s through the lens of the so-called “War on Terror” and with the ideas and policies produced by that process. This has hindered any academic approach and subjected the topic to the political agendas of the international powers and regional and local regimes, who play a game of mutual interests. Despotic regimes have exploited the pre-occupation of the international powers with terrorism illustrated as an existential threat in order to justify their authoritarianism and repeatedly encroach on public freedoms categorizing any forces or individuals opposing them, or even differing in opinion, as terrorists or at the very least, paint them as serving or supporting terrorism.

What made matters worse is that, contrary to commonly held belief, regimes define terrorism by the identity of the actor, not by the identity of the victim. That is to say, terrorism is not defined and distinguished analytically from other forms of violence as one that targets innocent civilians for political aims. Rather, the decisive definition of terrorism, from the perspective of the state, is that the perpetrator is a non-state agent, regardless of the identity of the victim, whether civilian, soldier or security personnel. Consequently, all armed organizations operating outside the law, including the law of an (illegal) occupation, or a dictatorship which forbids any kind of political activity anyway, are condemned as terrorist organizations. It also entails the exoneration of the state for political violence even if it commits genocide that targets civilians for political purposes. Holding the state accountable is subordinated to international balances of power, even if its act would have been categorized as terrorism if terrorism means political violence targeting civilians.

In this sense, the term “armed political violence” is restricted to the non-state organizations that embrace it and excludes the state. From this perspective, the state is not an armed organization, despite being an armed entity by the very definition, which has been singled out by Western sociology as possessing the monopoly on legitimate violence. Conversely, all armed organizations are considered terrorists by the previous definition of terrorism. The definition, by this logic, does not apply to states that use weapons to solve political issues, even if their armed forces and security services transform into something resembling an armed militia in conflict with the people, governed not by law but by the aim of maintaining the existing order whatever the cost. The Arab World has seen many examples of states that have produced militias in their service, such as Sudan and Iraq, as well as the transformation of official armies into militias.

This happened most recently in Syria and Libya, when the regimes of Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi came to look less like states and more like the biggest militia in the country. The only difference was that these militias enjoyed international recognition according to the “Putinist” concept of sovereignty according to which sovereignty is fused into the regime and not the state.

Even when a regime targets a civilian for political purposes after luring him to its consulate, this is not considered a terrorist operation. I have not heard any politician use the term terrorism to describe this act or as a form of state terrorism, which is a scandal in itself.

So when the term “armed violence” is used, state violence is never the intention. We all know that. We approach the topic having conceded fact that by transition from armed to unarmed political action we mean organizations and not states – which are armed entities by definition – even when the state is engaged in a violent conflict with vast sections of the population. This is a necessary caveat before going on to study a topic the understanding of which is completely dependent on the question of the state, the nature of its social and political system, and its options. These aspects cannot be neglected when discussing the evolution of the choices of armed organizations and their ideology. Nor can it be dismissed when looking at the conclusions and reconsiderations arrived at by its leaders, the cessation of external support to them after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or other factors that led to the shift from armed to unarmed political action (which are mentioned in the background paper).


Second Observation:

An approach to the topic under the general heading "Transformations from Armed to Unarmed Political Action" should not blur the lines between types of armed action and types of peaceful political action. The Social Sciences, in an attempt to avoid value judgements, usually slide into a pattern of non-discrimination between one weapon or another, and one peace or another. There are armed struggles which should never have begun in the first place, because they were not launched for liberation or for justice. By justice, I mean a balanced combination of freedom and equality– equality in the sense of equality of human value, not homogeneity or uniformity. There are armed movements that have declared their objective to be imposing a particular lifestyle or ideology on the public, or engineering their own vision of society, be they religious or secular. There are armed movements that have formed to free their nation from colonialism, or because authoritarianism closed the door to any kind of political action. This does not negate the likelihood that those carrying arms could, in the latter case, embrace an ideology and/or commit acts that corrupt their just cause. 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’. An armed struggle is not a conflict between the good guys and the bad guys in a Hollywood film. Adopting such formula leads to double standards in dealing with committed crimes tolerating usually the atrocities committed by the good guys.  However, there are definitely just causes in the world. These are represented by people who may slip into ideas that do not reflect the justice of their cause and who may also commit shameful acts that ultimately harm it. While the ideal that a just cause is represented by just people is an example that should be aspired to, this is not always the reality.


Third Observation:

Naturally, research on the topic of transition to peace, as in all branches of comparative political science that study transitions, is teleological; i.e. its aim is to accomplish peace. No matter how much those who work on the topic deny their biases, their work generally seeks with the tools of social science to justify and facilitate transition to a system close to their hearts. Similarly, research on the transition to unarmed political action looks forward to this transition and searches for ways to strengthen it with the tools of comparative political science and security studies. This is usually a noble aim, and doesn’t take away from scientific objectivity, as objectivity does not necessarily mean neutrality. Social sciences does not require neutrality but rather objectivity, so far as it is feasible. In this sense, social scientists look for reasons behind the transition: military defeat; a war-weary societal environment; an impasse leading to acceptance of the political reality; the promise of amnesty; a military victory that brought a certain organization to power. Transition may be stimulated by certain political reforms within the regime or government and some flexibility on the part of the armed organization, which allow the armed movements to assimilate within a system that has become more pluralistic. Researchers often address the social, political and intellectual contexts that made such paths possible under a particular balance of military power. However, research into the results of each path and the durability and stability of peace in each case is not less important. And the pertinent question is: If peace does not exist on the basis of justice, even if relative, and finding solutions to major societal cleavages and the institutional expressions of these wars, and healing the wounds emblazoned into memory, can this peace be sustained? Isn’t it likely that worse violence will emerge?

We know what the victory of an armed national liberation organization and the subsequent transformation to a state and an army means. We also have examples of armed militias ending civil, ethnic or sectarian wars by forming a consensual regime in one state or separation into different states. Let us try to understand. What does the transformation from armed political action to unarmed political action mean under the tyranny of an authoritarian regime? There are of course cases where groups have realized the consequences of military defeat or seen that the military struggle has reached a dead end, where factions are willing to return to civil life and satisfy themselves with an amnesty. Disarmament may also take place in the context of political reform that may lead to democratization in which the real weight of the armed factions is tested in elections. Between these extremes there are other options – opening a space for marginal political participation in the shadow of authoritarianism, for example adopting a competitive authoritarianism, and feckless pluralism.


The Fourth Observation is concerned with the opposite of this topic; i.e. the transformation of unarmed into armed political action, which if considered properly, is the same topic.

If I exclude the subject of the Palestinian armed struggle from this debate — and I exclude national liberation movements from armed political organizations, as the latter carry out violent illegal political action within sovereign states, while national liberation movements enjoy a legitimacy to carry weapons similar to the legitimacy of states under the condition that this should be understood as a responsibility and not a privilege  — then the Arab experience in recent years shows that tyranny that leaves no room for political reform and peaceful transformation, if combined with a policy of social marginalization and physical and psychological humiliation of large segments of the population, thus creates an environment conducive to armed action. This does not mean that this environment directly produces armed political action. That requires human actors whose will, intellectual and social background and culture cannot be omitted from research. But there is a difference between working in an appropriate and an inappropriate environment. It seems that Arab conditions impose on us a reverse question, and that is the conditions of the transition from unarmed to armed action.

It is undoubtable that people, in east and west, are generally inclined to be concerned with the running of their lives, which obviously means an inclination towards stability even under despotism and a fear of chaos. They prefer reform, transition and peaceful change if possible. But the regime’s refusal to reform and rejection of reform and the brutal oppression of peaceful movement, may lead to the disillusionment of some of the youth of the opposition, who had pinned their hopes on peaceful revolutions and the civil movement. This may lead in turn to a transition to armed action – albeit not everyone whose hopes have been crushed and whose dreams have become nightmares turns to arms.

Picking up arms in the time of counter-revolution increases the ferocity of tyranny and the public's desire for stability, even to the point of acceptance of the existing regime. The regime and its media and intellectuals help unpoliticized segments of the population not only to link revolution and change with armed action, but also to blame the victim – that is, to place responsibility for the regime’s crimes on the victims because they do not accept the status quo and the prevailing regime which has become synonymous with stability. It is not the violent or monstrous reaction of the regime to the demands for change to blame, but the demand itself. And the demand is condemned. In other words, if the victims had simply accepted the status quo in the first place, the people would not have had to go through all these sacrifices – whose absurdity the regime seeks to demonstrate by its unlimited brutality – only to surrender to it once more. We have seen this in Egypt, where the regime transformed a revolution and a struggle for democracy into a matter of maintaining security and stability and combating terrorism, which from another perspective turned the democratic struggle into a struggle for defending human rights.

In the countries where revolutions have taken place but where the army remained loyal to the regime and obeyed the orders to fire relentlessly on the demonstrators, some social and political forces have turned to arms. Armed action, in cases of spontaneous civilian revolution suppressed by force of arms, becomes infinitely fragmented since it has no history of organization. Nor have the spontaneous insurgents gained experience in a long-term organized struggle against the regime. Nor, indeed, do they have a central command to integrate the new insurgents thrown into by the suppressed revolution. Fragmented armed forces have arisen spontaneously. Some of them are made up of local armed groups. Some of them are rival Jihadi- Salafist movements that have no connection to the aims of the revolution. Some of them are affiliated with countries that supported the revolution and armed activities, and others are groups of warlords who have benefited from the control of areas and their resources. There is no doubt that the two exemplary cases here are Libya and Syria, which have gone beyond so-called “Somalianization”.

What distinguishes these cases is the lack of a central leadership for armed action and a lack of centralized political leadership to whom the military leadership submits. This type of armed action is not based on a unified strategy and does not present a political program but simply the overthrow of the regime — a just demand, no doubt, but one which cannot achieve a military victory because of the lack of a unified combat strategy and even unified interim military objectives. These groups are also unable to negotiate a peaceful solution – indeed, some elements may be used in negotiations to neutralize them while fighting others to eliminate them. International support for the organizations deepens fragmentation. The powers supporting the revolution become confused about what they should do, particularly in a zero-sum game, in the sense that the defeat of these forces leads to a complete victory for a brutal authoritarianism, the return of which is worse than ever before – because in addition to its previous tyranny, it is now vengeful and more criminal than ever because it survived in spite of the atrocities and crimes against humanity that it committed. On the other hand, it is impossible to draw a possible political map of the results of the supposed victory of these armed factions. The Libyan post-revolutionary events which brought down the regime despite fragmentation, due to the help of external military intervention, do not offer an encouraging example.

In the case of regime collapse – as happened in Libya, where foreign interference ultimately outweighed the fragmentation of opposition forces and the loyalty of Gaddafi’s private armies and their willingness to commit the most heinous of crimes – armed militias become a real obstacle to building state institutions.

 The existence of a unified state with active institutions is the primary condition, almost the only condition, for democratic transition, alongside the awareness and readiness of political elites to accept democratic procedures as an acceptable compromise for the organization of relationships among themselves. If the foreign forces that contribute to overthrowing the regime cannot build a new army that supports state institutions and absorbs armed factions by force or persuasion, these armed factions do not disappear but mature and become larger. Many individuals join who did not originally take up arms during the revolution but sign up because they need protection in the absence of a state, or as a source of livelihood, because the militias become employers. The armed revolutionary factions cannot be disarmed in the absence of state institutions, and state institutions cannot be built in the presence of armed factions. This vicious circle has to be broken to find a solution.

Experience has shown that armed movements cannot produce any real achievements in confronting a ruling regime, such as a foreign occupation or an authoritarian state, without a unified leadership and a committed strategy. It also demonstrates that the multiplicity of armed factions resulting from their spontaneous beginnings, their different social environments or their ideological struggle or all these factors combined do not take long to transform power struggles between them into the main conflict. The movements’ main energy becomes channeled into conflicts among themselves rather than the underlying conflict they were created for. These movements often fail to unite on their own due to a lack of mutual trust and the prevalence of mutual fear and narcissism and the illusion of strength produced by carrying arms without military training or party-imposed discipline. Therefore, the movement is either forcibly subjected to the will of one organization or the same happens by external intervention, or engaged in a prolonged conflict that may lead to the regime defeating them.

This is during the armed conflict phase. In the state-building phase, armed factions have to be integrated into one army or dissolved entirely in order to establish and develop state institutions, either by persuasion or force —preferably by peaceful means. But this requires compromises and settlements that take into account their expectations that in exchange for their sacrifices their leaders will receive a status and/or a share in power.  This is often better achieved in the case of a democratic state. But in an authoritarian state it does not take long for the repressed conflict between which is settled by sharing wealth and/or power to transform into internal purges within the government as we have seen in conflicts in many third world countries.

Transition to a democratic system cannot take place without giving up on armed action, which, by definition cannot coexist with state institutions and the state monopoly on legitimate violence, and contradicts the peaceful transfer of political power in free elections. The lack of equality between those who bear arms (even if they don’t use them) and those who do not precludes the emergence of a democratic pluralist system. The most that can be hoped to be reached between those who bear arms is a truce or a temporary agreement. Democracy requires abandoning arms altogether, regardless of the extent of the sacrifices made by those who took up arms against the dictatorship. Their insistence on bearing arms for political action is in itself a form of tyranny, and may turn into the chaos that the public fears more than it fears dictatorship.   

Therefore a despotic authoritarian regime may offer an answer to chaos. But in our era, it is a temporary answer. We are still in a historically transitional phase, in which everything is in a state of inconstancy and fluctuation. In the worst case, only one generation may be “persuaded” that authoritarianism is a cure for chaos —the generation that lived through the revolution and the counter-revolution. But even among this generation, it seems absurd to those who have been subjected to physical and psychological humiliation that their suffering is a sacrifice to maintain stability, even if the arguments are laid out in an academic journal read by a few hundred people.