The world awoke to a new front in the Arab Spring as thousands of protestors fought through guards to occupy Kuwait’s Parliament on Wednesday night. Chanting "this is our house" and "the people want the removal of the Prime Minister" the youthful crowd, accompanied by opposition parliamentarians, certainly looked the part of Arab revolutionaries. Yet Kuwait has been working toward this climax since before Tunisians took to the streets of Sidi Bouzeid. And while drawing momentum from Arab brethren in Egypt and elsewhere, Kuwait activists are not seeking regime overthrow but rather something even more rare — a genuine constitutional monarchy in the Gulf.
Kuwait is a natural candidate for such a distinction. Its proud tradition of civic activism goes back to the 1930s when prominent merchant families formed their own municipal council and then forced upon the governing sheikh the first elected Majlis in the Gulf. With its independence in 1961, Kuwait’s elite gathered in a constitutive assembly, which established Kuwait’s ruling order: an emir who stands above the fray appointing a government headed by the ruling al-Sabah family, but with significant powers of legislation and oversight held by an elected parliament. Twice the ruling family has done away with the nuisance of parliament through its unconstitutional dissolution. But since its reinstatement following Kuwait’s liberation from Iraq, the Parliament has assumed a central position in Kuwaiti life. It is fair to say that the National Assembly is essential to Kuwait’s very identity.
Yet there remains a key distinction between Kuwait’s order and a genuine constitutional monarchy — a distinction that maintains the primacy of the ruling al-Sabah, and generates endless friction with elected representatives. The elected political factions (Kuwait has no legal parties) do not select the cabinet, whose members stand as ex-officio members of parliament (MPs), providing the government with a key voting bloc. Elected MPs are thus unable to set pro-actively the policy of government, having only the power to call the ministers to account through parliamentary grillings, and to dismiss them if they can summon the majority in a vote of no confidence — a vote to which ex-officio members are excluded.
This "negative" power has been used increasingly in the post-liberation order. During the tumultuous five-year reign of the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, parliamentary grillings and the threat to withdraw support for ministers have resulted in the shuffling of seven cabinets, and on three occasions have compelled the Emir to dismiss the Parliament and call for new elections. This dizzying return to the ballot box eased only after the 2009 elections decimated the organized Islamist political blocs, and returned a Parliament with more independents and a less coherent opposition. The augmented support for the government allowed the Nasser al-Mohammed government to shift tactics: confident of success, the Premier for the first time stood for a vote of no confidence in December 2009, and won.
However the election of Kuwait’s most pro-government Parliament since liberation did not end the political intrigue. For the conflict between Kuwait’s executive and legislative branches has been matched by the in-fighting within the ruling family itself. Since the contentious succession of 2006, rival princes have been fighting a proxy battle for influence through Kuwait’s expanded private media and through the Parliament itself. This leadership struggle has stymied government-led economic diversification plans, further eroded the effectiveness of public services, and sown corruption throughout Kuwait’s governing institutions.
New evidence of the growth in corruption has been mounting for months. In August reports leaked to the media indicated that Kuwait’s two largest banks were looking into the transfer of $92 million dollars into the accounts of two members of Parliament. By September, Kuwait’s Public Prosecutor took the unprecedented move of opening an investigation into an ever-broadening number of politically suspicious transactions, resulting in allegations that around 16 MPs received about $350 million in bribes to vote in support of the government earlier this year. In October, the scandal spread to the Foreign Ministry on accusations by the parliamentary opposition members that the Prime Minister had diverted public funds to personal accounts abroad. This prompted the resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Salem al-Sabah, the lone minister from a rival branch of the ruling al-Sabah, who cited his unwillingness to serve in "a government that does not carry out true reforms regarding the multi-million bank deposits."
The scandal eroded the Premier’s already declining support with the public, and (ironically) hindered his ability to mount an effective defense in Parliament. Opposition MPs returning to a new parliamentary session in October boycotted committee meetings, refusing to sit with colleagues rumored to be corrupt. In November, the defection of the nominally supportive secular and pro-business National Action Bloc marked a turning point: the opposition now had the votes it needed to put through a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. This left the Emir with poor options. He would have to yield to the demands to replace his nephew — implicitly conceding greater parliamentary control over government leadership — or dissolve the Parliament, and face new elections in a very anti-government environment.
Returning from the Eid recess on Tuesday, the al-Sabah-led government played a final card. A controversial ruling returned by the constitutional court in October stated that the Prime Minister could not be grilled for violations committed by his ministers, only for issues under his direct authority. Using the ex-officio cabinet members as a voting bloc, government supporters scrapped a proposed grilling of the Prime Minister, signaling a new strategy to sidestep any future moves toward a vote of no confidence over the graft scandal. Opposition lawmakers decried this as "a clear attempt to prevent the lawmakers from exercising their constitutional right to question the Prime Minister," and a dubious means of escaping popular accountability.
The blockage in the National Assembly presaged a return to the extra-parliamentary strategy of popular mobilization. Declaring that "no medium of escalation would be spared" the opposition led by the tribal populist Popular Action Bloc had for weeks been holding seminars across electoral constituencies pushing for the trial of those involved in the bribery scandal, new elections, and the ouster of the government and its leaders. Youth movements, emboldened by the success of popular movements across the Arab world, set up an encampment in the public park outside the Parliament. On Wednesday one youth leader tweeted that "no solution will come from within the parliamentary halls of Abdullah al-Salem, but instead must come to it." On Wednesday night, in the course of a raucous protest, they did just that.
While it is clear that the storming of the Parliament crosses a threshold, it is unclear what is on the other side for Kuwait. The youthful protestors broke other red lines in directly taunting the Emir: a constitutional offense for which a number of Kuwaiti cyber activists were recently jailed. Will the public see this as going too far? Most Kuwaitis want reform but there is no appetite for revolution in this wealthy oil monarchy. A sign of such wariness can be seen in the statement issued by the liberal National Action Bloc that "the storming of the parliament is no less dangerous than what the government is doing." There exist deep social cleavages in Kuwait — sectarian and also urban elite fears of the empowerment of the largely tribal classes which have been at the forefront of the protests — which the ruling family can accentuate in drawing the public to the side of a law and order government. Yet too strong a crackdown will likely backfire against the government, just as it did in December of last year after the police attacked a political gathering of oppositionists, beating academics and parliamentarians.
The Kuwait opposition also faces difficult decisions about how to position itself on Kuwait’s constitutional order. Thus far popular action has been framed as a defense of Kuwait’s constitution in the face of official corruption and political subterfuge. Yet, the recent government maneuvers in the Parliament reveal more than ever the weaknesses in Kuwait’s constitutional system. Already one of Kuwait’s opposition parties, the Islamist Reform and Development Bloc, has called for amending the constitution to deny the voting rights of the ex-officio members. Yet opening the constitution to change carries substantial risks as well, especially as the constitution forms a bedrock for national unity — a point made repeatedly this past week as Kuwait celebrated 49 years since its enactment.
It is equally unclear what Kuwait’s dalliance with the Arab Spring may mean for the broader Gulf. Watching Wednesday’s events is the Qatar government happy that they pro-actively announced parliamentary elections for Spring 2013, or are they regretting opening the Pandora’s box of an elected legislative body? Is Saudi Arabia, with troops in Bahrain, anxiously eyeing another popular rebellion on the Gulf littoral, or are they privately enjoying "democratic" Kuwait’s troubles?
All turns on the outcome of Kuwait’s constitutional struggle. The Kuwaiti youth who took the seats of lawmakers and cabinet members in Abdullah al-Salem hall may have basked in their capture of the people’s house. But occupying the Parliament is not the same as assembling an effective opposition within it, an opposition able to appoint its own government and form a majority coalition that works for the betterment of all Kuwaitis. For that, a long political struggle remains, and the jury is still out.
Kristin Smith Diwan is an assistant professor of comparative and regional studies at the American University School of International Service.