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Larbi Sadiki
Larbi Sadiki
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.
From prisoners to rulers: Mobilising for Arab democracy
Militant movements, such as the African National Congress, often go through growing pains before societal integration.
Last Modified: 30 Apr 2012 17:35
The African National Congress, which celebrated its centenary in January, went from being a violent resistence movement to a peaceful de facto state party in South Africa [REUTERS]


Exeter, United Kingdom -
The Arab Spring has precipitated the rise of new politicians: formerly excluded or incarcerated non-state actors who are, today, either claimants of the state - or at least serious power bidders.

While this type of transition is fraught with challenges, it does not entirely defy plausibility in terms of potential for realisation. In the context of the Arab Spring, and even outside its immediate geography, this particular type of transition is vital for overall democratic transition, as I will explain.

The comparative perspective shows the trend to exit the periphery and enter the centre through open and legal politics to be encouraging. For the research community, this angle is worthy of consideration for two reasons: to tone down security approaches and solutions; and to combine or balance the security lens with a democratisation prism.

Once upon a time, some of the most feared or ostracised non-state violent actors were not deemed good candidates for military demobilisation and civil integration. The examples are legion and include the likes of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

 The ANC lights its centenary torch

With regard to the ANC's own transition, violence and maximalist politics ceded to negotiation and political integration. This was possible thanks to new opportunities which opened up genuine channels of political communication and participation. This, in turn, encouraged the ANC to reconfigure itself from a rebel to a political stakeholder using legal channels of participation. In particular, it accepted and measured up to two key principles.

Firstly, it committed to coexistence and power-sharing between the masters and victims of apartheid. This was a commitment to a new beginning, foregoing the desire to punish, exclude or oppress the former oppressors. Secondly, through the Truth and Reconciliation process aimed at post-apartheid healing and reconstruction, the ANC committed to review its own conduct of bearing arms, including recognising past errors committed during its own struggle against apartheid.

The ANC, which has recently celebrated its centenary, today holds a credible record of political rehabilitation and transition from rebellion to rule, despite the mammoth challenges of delivering social justice. In the same vein, the IRA has affected changes along similar lines. In July 2005, the IRA ended a 36-year guerrilla campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, paving the way for its own internal transition from a state of armed rebellion to one of political integration and competition through legal political processes.

This political milestone was a long time in the offing and demanded a great deal of negotiation and compromise. It also took considerable reconfiguration of political power, institutionally as well as internally on the part of the warring parties - Catholic and Protestant - to enable Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, to convince his comrades to lay down their arms in favour of political settlement through democratic and legal means.

Such a shift from the politics of rebellion to those of pragmatism and peaceful engagement through legal and democratic participation has been equally instrumental in the transformation of numerous non-state violent actors, particularly in Southern and Latin America. A very good example is the M-19 Democratic Alliance [Alianza Democrática] in Colombia. In the mid-1980s, the M-19 was waging an armed revolutionary campaign against the Colombian state. In the 1990s, it was able to effect a spectacular transition from revolutionary armed struggle into a legitimate political partner in electoral politics and in the process of post-conflict democratic reconstruction, namely, constitution-framing in 1991.

The M-19's route to demobilisation and integration into mainstream politics involved a switch to non-military tactics, political bargaining and negotiation with the centre, the contesting of elections, and integration into civil society.

Demolishing the walls of exclusion and marginalisation


The candidates for reinvention through a shift in political strategy from guerrilla, militia or the politics of rebellion to pragmatism are numerous. Even al-Qaeda must not be written off as a candidate. There is many a "story" of transformation, epitomised today by the ongoing integration into mainstream politics across the Arab Middle East (AME) in general, including within the Arab Spring geography, entails adjustment from the status of "rebel" to that of political "partner" or "ruler". This transition has meant former rebels, political pariahs, victims and prisoners are becoming enmeshed in legal politics and involved in the contest of power or its reconfiguration in many an Arab state.

The groups concerned vary in terms of their degrees of rehabilitation, their history of violence, levels of military demobilisation, experiences in exile and civil integration - and they may be found in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, or Yemen.

The first step in gaining equal access in polity, society and economy is to puncture holes in the rigid barriers of exclusion and marginalisation. This is, to an extent, what the Arab Spring has done: enabling the demolition of old structures of exclusion, creating openings never before imagined possible. It is the death of entire regimes of hegemony that open up space for new political comers: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the death of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of an empire such as the former Soviet Union, and the Arab Spring which brought down the granite wall of authoritarianism in three Arab states.

The Arab Spring has changed the conduct of politics in the sense that exclusion is no longer an option. To an extent, this is one of the main differences between Egypt and Tunisia: the former's inclusion of the Salafists in the political process helps long-term democratic reconstruction. Reaching political settlement in protracted conflict or a context of failed state cannot be concluded without the involvement of those non-state actors who engaged politics through resistance or violence, or from the margins of statecraft.

Neither political inexperience nor past use of violence should be grounds for exclusion in the context of the emerging democratic reconstruction. Use of violence in the pursuit of political objectives is shared by both state and non-state actors. Therefore, it should not be invoked as a basis for exclusion from the political process, since violence is a not just also a resource available to modern states - it defines them. New norms of doing politics are called for, and the Arab Spring favours a shift on this front.

Read more of our Tunisia coverage 

The dividends of legal political integration

This transition from periphery to centre and rehabilitation of former marginal and victims into open and legal politics are vital for the progression of the Arab Spring, specifically, and democratic reconstruction, more generally all over the AME. This transition demands equal opportunity for access as well as requires a new ethical toolkit: respect and representation of difference. However, there is a trade-off. To give up whatever "benefits" are to be had in the periphery, or through rebellion, are dividends obtainable only through the political process. This is at the core of the shift of tactics and strategy by the ANC, IRA and M-19, among others.

In relation to South Africa, only when the granite wall of apartheid began to crumble, owing to a confluence of local and international factors, and the ANC shifted tactics and opted for political negotiation, was democratic transition given a chance in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Central to this transition was the ANC's own transformation, in two ways:

  1. From a non-state actor, employing resistance and violence, to a powerful political bidder and stakeholder in post-apartheid South Africa: it is today a quasi de facto "state-party", and
  2. finding painful compromises that meant working with and forgiving former foes.

Adams and Sinn Féin convincing the IRA combatants to shift strategy came in the post 9/11 period and a new reading of global terrorism, making it unviable as a political instrument. The democratic and participatory imperative meant substituting the culture of resistance through violence with a culture of political bargaining, compromise and participation. This shift of emphasis has paid off, and this, no doubt, was factored into the calculus of power deployed by Sinn Féin. It is today the second largest party in Northern Ireland, with representation in the European Parliament, having a dual power base in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

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The Arab context

What is noticeable today is the plethora of parties, especially from within the forces of Islamism, both Shia and Sunni, which are shifting strategy. Hamas, Hezbollah, and Egypt's Islamic Group are a few illustrating this point. Perhaps there is a slower pace and in such a shift and this may be appreciated only by accounting for the specificity of each actor. For instance, Hezbollah is at once state and non-state actor, and Hamas lacks a state but is primarily a non-state actor endowed with the features of a "state" actor. Nonetheless, their adoption of a measure of electoral politics and civil engagement is intended to maximise benefits within their respective systems.

From Yemen to Syria, a new theatre for counter-state violence, there are lessons to be had from military demobilisation and civilianisation through mainstream politics. This is also of relevance to inexperienced Islamists who were on the margins of politics, and literally moving from being prisoners to rulers, such as in Tunisia and Egypt, and potentially in Libya.

The lessons are as follows. The age of ideological rectitude has passed. Similarly, rigid posturing and/or use of violence have proved their limitations in countries such as Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Salafists of all colours are emerging as key players on the back of the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt and even Morocco. Turning the learning curve in this regard - especially when good practices are shared across the Arab geography - bode well for democratic mobilisation.

The cases of Hamas and Hezbollah are worthy of study. Through political participation and adoption of an electoral imperative, respectively in 2006 and since the early 1990s, both have secured solid representation or affirmed wide following. The challenge remaining, despite factors having to do with conflict with Israel, is to prove their ability to solidify their civilianisation.

Generally, the biggest challenge of the rise of Islamists in the AME is to enable full integration into civil society. Ideological rectitude or sectarian identity means such integration can be only partial: in many cases, political parties founded on religious ideology or sectarian identity allow only a select membership.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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