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HomePopulism: Theoretical Confusion, Contexts of proliferation and Comparative Experiences

Populism: Theoretical Confusion, Contexts of proliferation and Comparative Experiences

الشّعبويّة: إحراجات نظريّة، سياقات الانتشار وتجارب مقارنة

Le populisme : dilemmes théoriques, contextes de propagation et expériences comparées

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Published on Friday, January 15, 2021


Although most researchers unanimously agreed on the modernity of populism, this should in no way discourage us from further examining the implications of this phenomenon and its origins in ancient history. The search for the historical roots of populism, that some relate to early times, is only an attempt to establish its origin. However, the subsequent transformations of populism in meaning and practice have made it difficult to discern its limits. Apparently, this critical approach seems to be inaccessible due to many considerations, including the transformations of populism in terms of concept and practice to the point of almost losing its first forms.  According to this approach, it is more likely that real beginnings of populism coincided with the emergence of modern democracy showing signs of deficiency.


The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Tunis announces the beginning of receiving research proposals to participate in the international scientific forum entitled “Populism: Theoretical Confusion, Contexts of proliferation and Comparative Experiences” that will be held on 20-21-22 May 2021 in Tunis. 


Although most researchers unanimously agreed on the modernity of populism, this should in no way discourage us from further examining the implications of this phenomenon and its origins in ancient history. The search for the historical roots of populism, that some relate to early times, is only an attempt to establish its origin. However, the subsequent transformations of populism in meaning and practice have made it difficult to discern its limits.

Apparently, this critical approach seems to be inaccessible due to many considerations, including the transformations of populism in terms of concept and practice to the point of almost losing its first forms.  According to this approach, it is more likely that real beginnings of populism coincided with the emergence of modern democracy showing signs of deficiency.

For more than a century, populism has widely spread in thought and practice, inspired by the diversity drawn from local cultural and political specificities, and different regional and geopolitical transformations. As a result, new variations emerged leading us to talk about specific forms of populism, such us Latin American populism, European populism, Asian populism, African populism ... etc.

Populism would not have found all this acceptance and popularity and created important incubators had it not been for the increased "demand for it". It may also be attributed to deeper reasons such as the severe structural crises that accompanied (liberal) democracy, a hypothesis that needs more consideration and further study, however.

What encourages  the adoption of this approach are the theoretical efforts that seek to elevate populism to the level of an alternative that sees the world and politics in a different way capable of saving people from the defects and dangers of democracy and enabling them to fulfill their will and embody their sovereignty.

Many researchers believe that populism has derived its legitimacy from the failures of the elites, especially in their political performance that has strained democracy for decades. Therefore, political participation has diminished, the popular base of political parties has eroded, and citizens have become reluctant to vote and engage in public affairs especially within climates of discontent against the growing influence of intermediary bodies that have deprived people of their will to the point of alienation.

There is no doubt that these are some of the factors that have contributed to the remarkable rise of populism; however, they just remain hypotheses that are not unanimous among many scientific communities.

Some may think that populism is an issue that does not concern us, and our countries will remain immune to it as it has gone hand in hand with democracies that emerged in Western societies. However, this opinion is wrong for more than one reason, the most important of which are two. The first is that some Arab countries have witnessed forms of populism in their recent political history, especially during the period of national independences which allowed the rise of authoritarian regimes that claimed to be the people's conscience, their authentic voice and the embodiment of their will; arguments that charismatic leaderships played a big role in anchoring them. And the second reason is the influence of the current populists on the course of events and international relations and their impact on many "Arab political movements". Furthermore, the political discourse of those ruling and in opposition has been fueled by the populist vocabulary and its practices.     

To analyze and deconstruct these treatises, and to answer a number of unsolved issues, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Tunis, organizes an international scientific forum entitled "Populism: Theoretical Confusion, Contexts of Proliferation and Comparative Experiences", which will discuss the following themes:

The first axis: Populism: ambiguity of the concept and vagueness of connotation

To begin, we have to admit that we are dealing with a modern concept that has not been discussed in the academic field until recently, and has remained for a long time a debatable issue in media and in heated political debates. Then it gradually crept into the social and human literature until it settled as a "concept" despite the heavy theoretical ambiguity that still surrounds it.

Populism may not be an exception as concepts are most of the time ambiguous no matter what clarity we claim. Nevertheless, the concept of populism maintained its uniqueness and remained tied to a stigma that specialists rarely succeeded in alleviating its impact.

The angles of consideration on populism varied among researchers. Some were interested in its economic and social expressions, whereas others focused on a set of behaviors and attitudes of the populist leader, who is keen to establish intimate and unique relationships with his people discarding most of the familiar intermediary bodies (especially in the case of Latin America) because they create a distance of alienation between the leader and his people.

Some others also pay great attention to the issue of political communication in populism by generally stressing the importance of its style and the widely accepted discourse that attracts the general population to the ruling elites. There is without a doubt an extensive lexicon and many records of different practices that are arranged with great care despite the illusion that they appear to be spontaneous words or actions.

Since the seventies of the last century, attention has been paid [1] to the distorted emergence of populism and the great ambiguity surrounding the concept, especially after its intense presence in contemporary political analyses. And although some theoretical tendencies disdain populism and considers it a "negative characteristic" and condemns its constant endeavor to undermine the government institutions and its continual skepticism about alternatives of political actors; we should be aware that this discourse is considered by populism as emanating from its opponents seen as the cause of all the economic, social and political crises that some countries are going through.

Therefore, some researchers [2]  , who strongly criticize the political elites for imposing their views on the public, have warned against populism. Nevertheless, despite the extensive use of the term populism in some analyses and the strong presence of the national political identity - in populist discourse - populism cannot be isolated from the accumulation of crises and the failure of reform proposals.

The concept of populism raises many and multiple questions on the truth of the analytical capabilities it claims. While acknowledging that populism could be one of the possible answers to the functional deficiencies of democracy and its modes of operation, it remains a "force of anger" that gives its discourse a protest style and a "real capacity for action."[3]

Thereby populism appears to be an umbrella term difficult for researchers to limit its connotations and clarify its meanings or link it to a specific political system or to a fixed ideological content. We are really facing great difficulty in drawing the boundaries of this concept, and perhaps this is what deprives[4] populism of the minimum scientific consensus about its significance.

Populism poses a set of theoretical research questions that mostly concern the different epistemological contexts for using this concept. Then, what are these contexts?

Is there an accurate meaning of populism and what are the risks of its uses? Does this concept, assuming agreement about its content, have a clear epistemic content, or is it just ideological? What are the analytical and procedural capabilities of this concept? How can we benefit from it - despite the many theoretical objections to it - in analyzing some of the modern and contemporary political crises that accompany democracy?

Hasn't it become, for some, an important theoretical entry point for understanding the implications of many social movements and their slogans about people's sovereignty, reviving democracy and rooting a participatory approach?

The second axis: Comparative Experiences

Since the outbreak of the first waves of” boastful” American and Russian populism at the end of the nineteenth century, a scientific discussion was launched that  has not been yet settled, and is still a controversy over the interpretation of what really happened. Contrary to all expectations, populism did not fade away but re-emerged fiercely in the last three decades. It managed, wherever it appeared, to form an electoral base that brought it to power or participating in it in several countries.

Since the American "People's Party" appeared, mainly calling for expanding public participation in the political process and the opening up of the political elite to rural farmers, to consolidate democracy. And through the Venezuelan experience calling for a fair distribution of wealth and resistance to outside interference and enabling people to govern. We can deduce that populism as a "political current" succeeded in highlighting the functional deficiencies of modern democracy and benefited from the stifling social crisis of the middle class and the decline of the gains of the rural population, workers and small employees, and turned into a strongly present political actor and an electoral number that could not be overlooked.

Syriza’s experience in Greece also provides further arguments on the connection between populism and challenging economic contexts as it has benefited from the suffocating social crisis that the country went through in the past few years to introduce itself as a socio-economic alternative that aspires to overcome this failure.  

The situation is not much different in France where the French right wing has settled in the political scene through a populist discourse that vulnerable, rural and middle urban groups, as well as affluent social strata have sympathized with.

American democracy, whose strength Tocqueville praised, was also not spared from populism, which allowed President "Trump" to gain broad support from the American countryside and a large vote of workers and small traders  before the balance of power turned in favor of his Democratic opponent in October 2020 elections.

Despite the different ideological orientations of these political experiences, they have several common points in their political demands and economic programs.

So what are the common characteristics of these diverse experiences? Are we dealing with a "syndrome", "ideology", or a "social movement"? Can we go beyond geopolitical contexts in order to get an inventory of the common characteristics of the phenomenon populism in the European, American, Latin, or Arab context?

Can we classify leaders, regardless of their ranks and positions, as populist just because they claimed to be as such?  Can the fact of calling opponents or allies as populist be an argument for the accuracy of the classification?

Has not calling others populist become an effective tool in the political conflict and a propaganda for them in light of the rise of populism in recent years and its transformation into a positive characteristic that is highly demanded?

And how can we talk of populism with impartiality? Does populism offer alternative contexts to overcome the crisis of democracy and ruling institutions, and does it give citizens a renewed framework for the behavior of political elites and others?

What are the factors that accompanied the rise of some "populist" political movements to power in European countries and in South and North America? Has these movements abandoned a large part of their economic, political and social programs when they exercised power, and became more realistic?

Have the "populist" movements succeeded in seizing hold of files and issues that for many years have been the monopoly of the opposition and the leftists in particular?

And finally, have they attracted voters and many social groups that used to be a loyal political and voting reservoir to their opponents, so that some accused them of robbing these resources?

The third axis: Arab populism

Since the first waves of independence, some Arab countries have known different discourses that expressed early populism. The rising ruling elites were determined to prove their "popular" origins and their absolute loyalty to the people whom they believed had been persecuted by previous regimes allied with colonialism. 

These regimes based on different ideologies and backgrounds (nationalist, leftist, pan-Arab, libertarian ...) and established in very contrasting political contexts, were  “mythifying”  the term ”People” and claiming the monopoly of their representation. This explains their hostility to the principle of representativity as stipulated by liberal democracy. Thus, they legitimized the cancellation of elections presumed to be useless because they saw themselves as the embodiment of people’ will.

Arab populists had authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies, so in the name of the people and their will, they accused parties of disloyalty and canceled them, and dissolved parliaments, etc. And while other populists claim to reform democracy and rid it of its flaws, most Arab populists were anti democracy.

With the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, a new wave of populism emerged and managed through its discourse to mobilize large groups of supporters and sympathizers, influence the course of events and bring about a new culture of political variations. The political discourse was enriched with new vocabulary and the political scene witnessed atypical practices. This populist discourse, held by people with different and contradictory political and ideological leanings and coming from heterogeneous social origins, tends to condemn the "political chaos, the decline of the state’s sovereignty and authority and the impoverishment and deceit of the people” that resulted from the democratic transition.  This is why it claims that it seeks to restore the people's authentic voice.

The magic slogan "The people want" raised by some groups is like a proof, whether a fact or an illusion, that these crowds speak in the name of the people, know their intentions and advocate their interests. It is also a proof that the street is still a political bazaar displaying what these people want.

Neither innovations in democracy nor the vigor of the civil society managed to contain this overwhelming tide. Perhaps some current populists aspire to advance these practices: sit- ins, demonstrations, coordination committees, and social networks, as a new form of direct democracy since they proved their effectiveness in many cases.

This populist discourse, which is widespread among many political elites, demonstrates a frank and scathing criticism of the poor performance of sovereign institutions and ruling elites and the lack of confidence in democratic institutions[5] which do not keep the promises they make during their election campaigns. In many cases, the populist discourse managed to be at the head of protest movements, grab media headlines, form a loyal public opinion and succeed in turning a part of the general public against the elites.

Arab populist discourse has been fueled by the crisis of newly elected democratic institutions and their poor functioning in addition to the social and economic gains promised by the forces of change that turned out to be meager. Arab populism also took advantage of the disruption of the democratic transition in more than one place to intensify its attacks against it.

This invites the following questions: what are the factors and the national and Arab contexts that allowed this discourse to emerge, establish roots, and expand? What are its features? What is its content - if any -? What are its mobilization capabilities? How far was it successful? What are its failure indicators? Is it really a manipulative discourse or does it have a special logic in its criticism of the political and economic situations? How has it benefited from growing social disparities and increasing inequalities? Is it really a motive that drives social change?

The fourth axis: The Tunisian Experience

Tunisia represents a significant case for understanding shifts in the political discourse, especially in view of the growing lack of confidence in the various political elites.

Political and electoral expressions emerged investing in the tendency of the popular mood to "trivialize" and disapprove of partisan activity. Populism represented, with this tendency, an attempt to renew forms of political and mobilization work. It invested in political activities (coordination, forums, movements ...), and developed a critical discourse of the existing "System" exploiting loopholes, shortcomings and dilemmas that plagued the Tunisian representative democracy until it succeeded in obtaining seats in parliament, relatively “freeing” the political sphere from the "traditional party brands." 

These rising political forces benefited from the degradation of social and economic conditions of the middle-class and vulnerable groups during the decade of the democratic transition. These growing political entities have adopted unconventional forms (in terms of content - approaches - methods of propaganda ...) for their electoral and political campaigns. They have not linked their presence in the public sphere and candidacy for various positions and bodies with revolutionary ideals or militant history, but rather with their marketing skills and experiences, inducement techniques of the masses and their proximity to them. They have even proposed a new "package" of alternatives and recommendations as the only way out of the crisis.

The "strength" of this current lies in the combination between its "claim" of patriotism, purity, defense of the prestige of the state and the relevance of its alternatives. Thus, it presents itself as the protector of the people and the nation. This approach has enabled populists to develop new propaganda dynamics to their narratives and play an impressive and prominent role in media until they “radiated". It has also opened up opportunities for them to have broad influence on the electoral reservoir and occupy advanced positions in various elected institutions that constituted for them significant official fortresses.

Not only does this "populist mood" claim to be a new option in politics and economics, but it also establishes itself as the only alternative capable of reshaping the national political scene. Populism in Tunisia has benefited from clear dynamics from which it has drawn ideas and solutions for the rigidity of the governance institutions. The numerous protest movements and the youth movements in many regions also represented a social context for populist discourse to the point of “appropriating” the representation of a region, a class or a sector.

We would be interested to know the characteristics of populist discourse in the Tunisian experience, its targeted audience and the kind of vocabulary it uses. How did this populist discourse invest in the grumbling moods of large groups? Did populism really benefit from the centers of influence of invisible hands? To what extent has the stumbling democratic transition contributed to creating incubators for the populist discourse? How can democracy survive and recover from its ills as it confronts populism? Finally, have geopolitical and regional contexts played a role in fueling this discourse and fostering its recent revival?

Important dates

Forum Date: 20-21-22 May 2021

Deadline for abstract submission: 14 February 2021

Evaluation results and approval: 28 February 2021

Deadline for final full paper: 18 April 2021

Terms of participation

  • Fill in the registration form attached, also available at http://carep.tn and choose one of the axes.
  • Submission of abstracts: The participant mentions the axis in which she / he will participate. The number of words in the abstract ranges from 500 words to 700, including the title of the intervention, the stated problematic, the research methodology and main ideas, as well as five key words and a brief bibliography. Full respect should be allotted to the academic standards of paper and margins writing and the list of references. See http://dohainstitute.org or http://carep.tn
  • Submission of Full Paper: from 5000 to 7000 words
  • Final text and abstract: Sakkal Majalla (14) is used in the Arabic language. For other languages, the Times New Roman font is used. The line spacing is 1.5
  • Languages of the forum: Arabic, French, English
  • The authenticity of the research paper: The researcher should not have participated with the same paper at any other scientific event
  • Email address: The draft interventions must be sent to: scientifique@carep.tn.
  • Publication: The proceedings of this forum will be published in Arabic at a later date and the participants will be informed.
  • The center translates texts from foreign languages into Arabic
  • The Conference shall cover travel and subsistence expenses, and no remuneration shall be granted for any research presented at the conference. Accepted researches shall be considered intellectual property of the Center
  • Inquiries: by e-mail: a.scientifiques@carep.tn, or by phone: (00 216) 70 147 384 / (00 216) 70147385

Scientific Committee

  • Mounir kchaou: Professor and Researcher in Social Philosophy, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
  • Mounir Saidani : Professor and Researcher in sociology at the Higher Institute of Humanities, Tunis.
  • Mehdi Mabrouk: Professor and sociology Researcher at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tunis.
  • Bouhnia Kaoui: Professor of Law at Kasdi Merbah University of Ouargla, Algeria.
  • Mohamed Limam: Research Professor in political sciences, Jandouba University,accredited to supervise research at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences, Tunis.
  • Mohamed Faoubar: Moroccan Researcher, Professor of sociology, coordinator of the Research Unit: Education and Social Policies at the Social Development Laboratory at the University of Fez.
  • Mohamed Rahmouni : Lecturer in Arab civilization at University of Tunis.
  • Aymen Boughanmi : Assistant Professor in British and American civilization , University of Kairouan.
  • Chaker Houki : Assistant Professor in public law and political sciences at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences, University of Tunis Elmanar.
  • Asma Nouira : Research Professor in political sciences at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences in Tunis, University of Tunis.
  • Ahmed Idali : Moroccan Researcher, Professor of political sciences at Ibn Tufayl University, Kenitra, Morocco.
  • Mehrez Drissi: Researcher in Educational Psychology and Expert in Academic Counselling
  • Adel Ayari: Assistant Professor and Researcher in Sociology of Institutions, University of Tunis. Rapporteur of the Scientific Committee.


[1] Ernesto Laclau, La Raison populiste (Paris :Seuil, 1978).


[2] Christopher Lasch, La Révolte des élites et la trahison de la démocratie, trad Christian Fournier  (Paris : Flammarion, 2010)


[3] Pierre Rosanvallon , Le Siècle du Populisme, : Histoire, théorie, critique( Paris : Seuil, 2020).


[4] Cf ; Pierre -André Taguieff, «  le populisme et la science politique, du mirage conceptuel au vrais problème », Revue d’histoire, N°56, (1997) ;   Pierre- André Taguieff, l’illusion populiste. De l’archaïque au médiatique (Paris : Berg International, 2002). ;


[5] Azmi Bishara, in response to the question: What is populism (Beirut: Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2019).


  • Tunis, Tunisia (1082)


  • Sunday, February 14, 2021


  • henda ghribi
    courriel : henda [dot] carep [at] gmail [dot] com

Reference Urls

Information source

  • henda ghribi
    courriel : henda [dot] carep [at] gmail [dot] com


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Populism: Theoretical Confusion, Contexts of proliferation and Comparative Experiences », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, January 15, 2021, https://doi.org/10.58079/15tr

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