The Middle East Channel

Kuwait’s vanishing opposition

Kuwait’s vanishing opposition

On a recent evening in the Maidan Hawalli neighborhood of Kuwait City, dozens of liberals gathered to discuss why an opposition movement that just months ago brought thousands to the streets has all but disappeared.

In 2012, a broad-tent coalition of liberals and Islamists, youth and tribal leaders, led a series of mass protests calling for an electoral boycott and reforms — even an elected prime minister. Kuwait’s Arab Spring — involving less tectonic but still significant changes — seemed in the making. Yet now, just under a year later, sporadic demonstrations draw only dozens, and the momentum is gone.  

Cramped into a tiny room in a run-down office building, the activists pointed fingers and sighed exasperated sighs. They blamed one another or the government or general naivety. But all of them agreed about one thing: they are divided amongst themselves now that they lack any unifying goal.

"The opposition made its constituency feel let down. They were not able to analyze the political scene. They had problems organizing," one man in the audience accused in a single breath. "It’s basically impossible to get the opposition all in the same position, and that’s healthy," a speaker at the event, leftist politician Anwar Al Fikr, countered. "Ok, we have various opinions," another speaker from the left-leaning Progressive Current, Sager Hajaj, added. "But we have to stop criticizing each other."

Whoever is to blame — and a need to assign blame may be part of the problem — Kuwait’s opposition today is down, if not totally out. It has few seats in the new parliament. It has divided into at least two separate coalitions that don’t work together except tacitly. Its strongest leaders and personalities have conflicts between them. And dozens if not hundreds of young activists and former members of parliament are facing charges that take up most of their time, from illegal gathering to insulting the emir, an act which is prohibited in Kuwait’s Constitution.

"We could be sick for now, but the patient hasn’t died," said Progressive Current general coordinator, Dhari Al Rujabi of the opposition.

It is also simply unclear what opposition figures want and whether they are willing to sacrifice their comfortable lifestyles, generous welfare benefits, and relative stability to get there. Those are questions some in the opposition cannot answer themselves — and will probably have to before their movement is revived.

The shift backward comes in stark contrast to the opposition’s recent momentum, built over nearly half a decade. Beginning in 2009, a group of youth began loudly nudging the country’s politicians toward reform. They organized amongst themselves and called for reform to the voting districts under the umbrella of an "orange movement." In 2011, they stormed the parliament, eventually forcing the prime minister to resign. Slowly, Kuwait’s established Islamist and tribal politicians followed their lead and called for change, after decades of allying with the government.

By 2012, the youth were calling for an elected prime minister and the legalization of political parties.  After months of convincing, the older opposition politicians acceded to those demands and young activists shaped an agenda that would have reimagined Kuwait’s political system.

But it wasn’t until the fall of that year that the opposition movement took off. While parliament was out of session, the emir issued changes to the parliamentary electoral law, limiting the number of votes each person could cast from four to one — a change that eliminated the possibility of coalition voting. Protests under the banner Karamat Watan, or "dignity of the nation," took over the city center. When police broke up the demonstrations with tear gas, the subsequent protests only got larger.

At the time, opposition activists argued that their divisions would not scupper their cooperation. Islamists, tribalists, young, and old could agree that they opposed the emiri decree and wanted more political participation. But today they seem to have fallen victim to their critics’ predications that a perilously large coalition would split.

"They have a problem inside themselves," said Nawaf Al Hendel, a human rights activist. "There are many agendas from many different people."

The liberals’ own internal divisions offer a glimpse at just how little agreement there is. In June, when the country’s highest court affirmed the emir’s changes to the voting system, opposition candidates faced a choice to run again or to continue applying pressure from the outside.

"Half of the liberals said let’s do reforms from the inside. The others stayed out of the elections and also stayed quiet," said an activist, who couldn’t use her name because she is employed by the government. "I voted in the last election, so let’s wait and see." Many of Kuwait’s tribes also came back into the system, cajoled by the emir personally.

Amid the divisions, some in the opposition still see a silver lining. "I think the opposition is in the phase of development," said Al Rujabi, of the Progressive Current. "It’s a chance to turn from being reactive into setting an action plan for building a better democracy."

Others insist that upcoming court cases will reinvigorate the youth. On December 9, a court is expected to issue a verdict in the case of 68 activists who stormed the parliament in 2011. They face sentences of up to 10 years for assaulting the guards of the National Assembly.

But activists also admit that the opposite could happen after the verdict is issued in that case. Almost all of the youth activists who for years have silently driven the opposition’s political agenda are among those facing charges. If they are put in prison now it may cripple the opposition for good. One activist said succinctly, "It would be the end of Kuwait."

Sulaiman Al Jassem, one of those who stormed parliament, cautioned that one-offs — whether court cases or specific government policies — won’t unify such a diverse coalition for any longer than last time.

"When we started in 2009, we had a goal: to remove the prime minister — and we did," he said. "All the problems started once we reached our goal and we had nothing left to win anymore."

Elizabeth Dickinson is Gulf correspondent for The National, and former FP assistant managing editor. This article is the first of a series produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations for the report — "Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home."