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.


Policy Implications and Recommendations

Transformation processes and “de-radicalisation” programs have been used as an integral part of counter-terrorism and security strategies in several Arab countries. For example, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen employed structured prison programs under the control of the state/authorities in which interactions between prisoners and religious/spiritual leaders and civil society members were introduced. Selective inducements were also employed under state-control to support the “deradicalization” and the abandonment of political violence by selected individuals.

These programs employed varying types and levels of socioeconomic incentives, psychological therapy, theological and religious guidance, and sports and arts therapy. But the results in the Arab World were meagre, if not farcical.

In the Iraqi context, ISIL was ultimately the product. The program failed to reduce its recruitment, rise, and risk potentials. In the Saudi context, tens of the graduates of the Saudi “Munasaha” program joined al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and became leading commanders. The problem was not with the programs per se.

It was the unreformed and sustained repressive, corrupt and sectarian socio-political environment in which these programs and the individuals benefiting from them were embedded in. As a result, the rates of success (and failure) were highly contested, mainly due to macro-level structural challenges and inhospitable environments. So far, there is no consensus on how to measure the success of these programs, although it is more feasible to measure collective transformations (organisations and factions), than individual ones.

Additionally, the sustainability of these programs as well as transformation processes – without a thorough process of political and security reform and transitional justice – is questionable. Regardless of the approach taken to explain transformations towards unarmed politics, a consensus among scholars and experts has developed: the processes are extremely context-sensitive.

In other words, in a political context where authoritarian repression, military coups, civil wars, and other forms of political violence and social instability are the common features, sustained political violence will be the likely outcome – both on organisational and individual levels. Attempted processes and programs of transformations are more likely to fail or collapse in the short to mid-term.

The “Arab Spring” has provided scholars and practitioners with several important lessons about how changes within the socio-political environment can affect transformations towards unarmed activism. The success of mainly unarmed civil resistance tactics in bringing down two authoritarian regimes in Tunisia (2010, 2011) and Egypt (2011) has briefly undermined the rationale arguing that armed action is the most effective (and, in some ideologies, the most legitimate) means for social and political change.

However, the transformation of the nature of the uprisings in Libya and Syria in 2011 and onward, and the regional developments in Iraq (during and after April 2013) and in Egypt (during and after July 2013) have led to different conclusions: soft power and civil resistance tactics have their limits and, to pursue real change, hard power is necessary. In such an environment, radicalization, recruitment and ideological frames supportive of armed action are more likely to grow, survive and expand. Still, a few critical policy implications and recommendations can be offered to stakeholders and end-users.

In the Short-Term (1-to-3-year range):

Establish a Forum on Transformations to Peaceful Activism (TPA).

The forum would aim to garner both practical lessons learned and state-of-the-art scholarship about transformations to peaceful activism on a regional and global scale. It would gather academics, officials, practitioners and leaders of the transformations to share experiences form different standpoints. The Forum would be held on an annual basis in Doha.

The Forum will also act as a brainstorming hub on future scenarios, trajectories, initiations, and the sustainability of transformation processes to unarmed activism, with annual forecasts and policy implications and recommendations based on a global, comparative and critical perspectives.

Protect and Preserve Strategic Gains.

In the Arab World, almost all of the once-armed large groups upheld their transformation from armed to unarmed activism during the brief period of the “Arab Spring.” This should not be taken for granted and should certainly be treated as a strategic gain that could cause “domino effects” on both national and regional levels.

Like the Colombian cases (from the M-19 to the FARC) and other Latin American ones, lessons learned through research and practice should be upheld to promote sustainability and continuity, and to avoid recidivism. This can be structured via the above-mentioned Forum. 

Promote National Reconciliations.

Popular support for national reconciliation, compromise, inclusion, and general de-escalation is crucial for supporting transformations to unarmed activism. Qatari foreign policy has already been engaged in promoting national reconciliations, most notably in Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This should continue and perhaps widened in other countries. And it should take into account that popular support for national reconciliations is a variable.

It can be diminished by demagogues, warlords, state and non-state violent extremists, hysteric media, and regressive education. But it can certainly be enhanced partly by investing in a responsible, aware elite, progressive education, free media, and strategy to deal with spoilers.

Support Media and Education Reforms.

A free media that promotes reconciliation, compromise, inclusion, and general de-escalation is essential to support transitions to unarmed activism, as opposed to a sensationalist media that promotes social and sectarian extreme polarization. The same applies to education where there is a need to promote the importance of national peace and supremacy of reconciliation via elementary, secondary and higher education.

Essential elements of reformist curricula should include the de-glorification of various forms of political violence (including military coups, state repression, civil wars, and both state- and non-state terrorism), promotion of non-violent conflict resolution mechanisms. It should foster respect and celebrate diversity and difference of opinion with an emphasis on human security, and its importance to state, regional and international security.

In the Mid- and Long-Term (5-to-10-year range)

Security sector reform (SSR) is a key variable.

It was clear that transitions from armed to unarmed activism are less likely to be sustained unless there is a thorough process of reforming the security sector. The reform process should entail changing the standard operating procedures (SOPs), training and education curricula, leadership and promotion criteria, as well as oversight and accountability by elected and judicial institutions, and partly by civil society organisations.

The violations of the security sector, and the lack of accountability to address such violations, have been a major contributor to sparking and sustaining violent extremism. This is becoming less of a hypothesis, and more of a sustained conclusion.

Balance civil-military relations (CMR).

This implication is directly derived from the above-mentioned SSR one. Reconfiguring and rebalancing civil-military relations in such a way that armed state institutions become more accountable to elected and judicial authorities. The supremacy of the armed over the elected and the judicial/constitutional has created a political context in which bullets are more significant than ballots and laws as methods for attaining and remaining in political power.

Compared to arms and coups, votes, constitutions, good governance and socio-economic achievements are by far secondary means to attain or remain in power. And in several Arab countries, they are relegated to simply a cosmetic casing.

Demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) is costly but worth the investment.

A final recommendation is about DDR. The politicization of such a process and its failure in Libya and Yemen in the aftermath of the Libyan and Yemeni revolutions have led to the rise of multiple armed state and non-state actors, unbounded by any constitutional or legal frameworks. That phenomenon facilitated the necessary resources and logistics to warlords, violent extremists, ethnic, regional and sectarian armed entrepreneurs, and the likes.

DDR is an integral part of any transformation to unarmed activism and it is inherently connected to SSR and CMR. Most armed non-state actors in post-conflict environments will refuse to disband and demobilize if there is no mutual trust or guarantees with the official armed institutions and armed state actors. This is especially the case when the latter has been traditionally above oversight, accountability and law. But DDR is worth the investment, as the ultimate success or failure of transformations can depend on it.


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


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