General Director Dr Azmi Bishara gave the opening lecture for the third ACRPS Winter School on “Variations of Populism”, which is being held between 4 and 13 January 2022. The lecture was titled Populism and the Permanent Crisis of Democracy.
Bishara began his lecture by raising various methodological questions surrounding the understanding of populism. Is populism a political movement? An ideology? A discourse? He pointed out that despite its free and easy use among some writers, “populism” is ultimately a discursive phenomenon that can be used by different ideological and political currents whenever the circumstances are amenable to producing a populist mood.
He then reviewed some of the relevant literature from the 1950s and 1960s, which looked at populism in Third World countries, including Arab countries. The term was used to describe various post-war regimes and leaders in Latin America, particularly Peronism and its offshoots. It was also used to refer to authoritarian Arab leaders and their political discourse and to some of the parties that dominated the post-war Arab public sphere. But as Arab regimes left populism behind, the term became less and less common.
Tensions of democracy in populist discourse
Bishara also pointed out that the putative current crisis of liberal democracy is not an entirely new phenomenon but is simply the most recent version of what he calls the “permanent crisis of democracy”, a crisis that has driven the development of liberal democracy. There are three structural tensions underlying this crisis. The first and most important is the tension between the democratic element – popular participation, based on the assumption of individuals’ moral equality and their equal ability to identify what is in their best interests – and the liberal element, which limits the power of the state. The second lies within the democratic element itself: the idea that the people governs itself on the one hand and the fact that in reality they are represented by organized political forces and elites operating via a state bureaucracy. The third tension is between electoral representation and the existence of unelected forces that are nonetheless able to influence or even block decision-making: the judiciary, the civil service, etc. These tensions may produce identity politics or anti-political movements, the most dangerous of which are the parties of the non-traditional populist right.
Populism in the Arab World
Bishara then moved on to discuss populism and its relationship with democracy in the Arab World, citing the examples of Egypt and Tunisia. He argued that nobody would say that the situation in Egypt is populist: despite the wide use of populist rhetoric (demagoguery) by almost every political group, there is no stand-alone populist phenomenon. In Tunisia, however – where a democratically elected president is using populist rhetoric against a democratically elected parliament – there is a stand-alone populist phenomenon. He argues that ten years after the Tunisian Revolution, the ruling parties have not been able to put in place an economic program capable of bridging the gap between rich and poor or addressing rising unemployment. Endless party infighting has left Tunisians disillusioned about the political elite, and the election of Kais Saied, a political unknown, was the result. According to Bishara, Saied’s rhetoric provides a classic case of populist discourse – scorning parliament in favour of “grassroots” or “direct democracy”, accusing the opposition of being “traitors” and accusing the political classes of “conspiring with businessmen”.
Bishara added that in entrenched democracies populism has often helped democracy develop, but that in fledgling democracies it has the opposite effect. Where people are not yet habituated to democratic values and institutions are not committed to democracy – particularly unelected institutions like the army and judiciary – populism is exceedingly dangerous to democracy (as in Germany and Italy).
Bishara concluded by saying that populist movements always assume that people are angry and resentful and that their enemy can only be defined as an “other”, whether the “elites” or the “parliament” (despite the fact that populist leaders are generally themselves part of the political elite). They base their discourse on the idea of an angry public that has been excluded from politics. More importantly, they are able to demonise their enemies, assume the existence of a conspiracy, and reproduce an angry populist mood that can be directed against these “enemies”. Populism imagines “real people” that have nothing to do with people as they actually exist and a “corrupt elite” from which its leaders are mysteriously detached (despite being politicians or even tax-dodging businessmen with dubious financial histories).