By Dr. Omar Ashour

The collective transformations from armed to unarmed activism are a process of relative change, in which an armed group can reverse its ideology, narratives, rhetoric, behaviour and/or organisational structure away from armed action, and towards unarmed political or social activism.



Transformations from armed to unarmed political activism remains a global phenomenon, understudied in the Arab World and elsewhere.

Accordingly, the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) organised a symposium entitled “From Bullets to Ballots: Transformations from Armed to Unarmed Political Activism” on 3-4 November 2018.

The symposium 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 symposium 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.

One quantitative study demonstrated that among 268 identified armed groups that operated between 1968 and 2006, only 20 (7%) were defeated militarily.

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.

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.

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. 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 symposium and the forthcoming book – based on the symposium – will engage with to explain transformations from armed to unarmed political activism.

This 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. 

The 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.

Bullets to Ballots: A Theoretical Framework

The collective transformations from armed to unarmed activism are a process of relative change, in which an armed group can reverse its ideology, narratives, rhetoric, behaviour and/or organisational structure away from armed action, and towards unarmed political or social activism.

In Security Studies literature, this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “de-radicalisation” or a process by which an armed organisation de-legitimizes the use of armed tactics to achieve political goals, while also moving toward an acceptance of gradual social, political and economic changes within a pluralist context. But scholars have never agreed on one precise term for it and the security studies community has debated the definition and the dimensions of “de-radicalisation.”

Some scholars argue that the concept should be centred on changing attitudes toward political violence and the pace of socio-political change, rather than toward constitutional liberalism.

This means that deradicalized groups will reject violence and accept slow and gradual institutional reform within a relatively reformed status-quo, but may still uphold intolerant, misogynist, xenophobic and other illiberal views.

Others believe that deradicalized groups and individuals must uphold constitutional liberalism. This sets the standard of “de-radicalisation” and even transformations to unarmed politics at a higher level, at which many political parties, social movements and particularly armed groups may fail.

There are political costs and policy implications for upholding either of the definitions. The first definition (transforming to unarmed politics behaviourally but upholding illiberal views ideologically and rhetorically) may risk undermining social cohesion, especially in multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religions societies.

The second definition can be abused to dismiss mere transitions from armed to unarmed activism as “deradicalization failures” and therefore politically and legally exclude particular groups on the basis that they did not become liberal democratic entities, even if the contexts in which they operate are ruled by brutal dictatorships.

In previous works based on the experiences of the Arab World, the author found it useful to distinguish between deradicalization and moderation.

The latter is also a process of relative change that is mainly concerned with attitudes toward liberal democracy. Still, as Jillian Schwedler asserted, there is also no scholarly consensus on the definition of moderation.

Within authoritarian regimes, “deradicalization” and transformation to unarmed activism are sometimes conflated with political co-optation and buy offs.

Only groups and individuals that toe the regime line and show loyalty to the leader – whether an authoritarian president or a regressive king – are considered “de-radicalized” or “moderates.”

If a group transforms its means for change – from armed to unarmed – but remains in opposition, it is still “radical” or “extreme.”

Transformations from armed to unarmed activism can occur on three dimensions: ideological, behavioural and organizational.

And usually a combination of charismatic leadership within the organization, a hurting stalemate, interactions with the non-like-minded “other” as well as between the layers of the organization, and selective inducements from the state and other regional and international actors within a de-escalatory environment are common causal variables of initiating the transformations.

There is a pattern of interaction between these meso- and micro-level factors.

A hurting military stalemate and interaction with non-like-minded actors often affect the ideas and the behaviour of the leadership of an armed organization and are likely to lead those leaders to initiate three endogenous processes:

(a) strategic calculations based on cost-benefit analysis,

(b) political learning based on interaction with the non-like-minded, and

(c) modification of the group’s worldview as a result of severe crises, frustration and dramatic changes in the environment.

Following these processes, the leadership of an armed organization initiates a transformation process that is bolstered by selective inducements from the incumbent authorities as well as by internal interactions.

Also, transformed groups often interact with armed groups and sometimes influence them in a controlled, pressured environment (such as prisons, areas of exile, or rugged strongholds).

A similar process occurs within the armed institutions of the state and the incumbent authorities.

Finally, macro-level (state or interstate) variables are critical in sustaining (as opposed to initiating) the transformations. These variables include democratisation levels, security sector reform processes, balanced civil-military relations, credible transitional justice processes, and levels of regional and international support.

Methodologically and conceptually, several important and critical observations were made at the onset of the ACRPS symposium.

The first is how the “War on Terror” discourse, the definition of terrorism according to the identity of the perpetrator rather than the victim, and the subsequent media and policy treatment have affected the research agenda on transformations from armed to unarmed activism.

This has impeded critical research questions and made the topic subject to political, as opposed to scholarly, agendas.

The second observation is how the inherent (positive) bias of scholars towards peace and ways to consolidate it, have affected their conclusions and findings, and exposed them to the risk of teleological and even tautological argumentations.

A third observation was about the need for nuanced typologies of the different forms of armed and unarmed activism, given the unnuanced categorisations in much of the Security Studies and Political Science literature.

A final observation had to do with how brutal political environments can cause an alternative transformation: from peaceful to violent activism.

Certainly, some of the Arab World’s experiences in recent years has shown that “tyranny leaves no room for political reform and peaceful transformation….and if combined with a policy of social marginalization and physical and psychological humiliation of large segments of the population, it [tyranny] will inevitably create an environment conducive to armed action.”

continues in part 2


Omar Ashour – Associate Professor of Security Studies and Middle East Politics. Martial arts former champ, among other stuff. Views mine.





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