The Middle East Channel

Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood under pressure

Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood under pressure

The Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated political party, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM, known by its Arabic acronym Hadas), have a long history as accepted participants in Kuwaiti politics and society. Yet the movement has not been immune to the growing regional backlash against Islamist movements. In recent months, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office by the military, Tunisia’s secular political parties have used months of street protests to pressure the Ennahda-led government into resigning, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) put 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis on trial for alleged links to the Brotherhood, and opposition to the Libyan Justice and Construction Party has grown increasingly shrill. While it is unlikely to be subject to full repression, Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood similarly is feeling an unfamiliar pressure. 

The Kuwait branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was built slowly in the 1950s and 1960s, following the model of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It spent much of its first few decades focused primarily on charitable, educational, and social activities to propagate its message of building a more Islamic society. The Brotherhood dabbled in politics as well, running candidates in parliamentary elections and participating in student government, but it proceeded cautiously and earned a reputation for being loathe to alienate the regime. 

In the aftermath of the 1990 Iraqi invasion, the Kuwait Brotherhood underwent a period of significant change, breaking organizational ties with the international Muslim Brotherhood over Islamist support for Iraq and founding a political party, Hadas, to participate fully in Kuwaiti politics. Throughout the 1990s, the Brotherhood stepped up its domestic focus and increased its investment in electoral politics. With its superior organization and relative independence from its parent movement, Hadas quickly established itself as an effective political party, working with other opposition forces and regularly winning several seats in parliament throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

This energetic plunge into political activism was made possible by the nature of the Kuwaiti political system. It is more liberal than other monarchies in the region, with its history of lively, though still limited, parliamentary politics (the ruling family dominates the position of prime minister and much of the cabinet). At the same time, it is also more politically diverse, with everyone from Salafis, tribal figures, Shiites, liberals, nationalists, and even the ruling family actively jockeying for political influence alongside the Brotherhood. Hadas generally struck an oppositional pose, though it did occasionally send members to the cabinet. It had neither hope nor ambition of winning a parliamentary majority. These limited aims reflect the organization’s attempts to calibrate its image as both an opposition movement and a political party that appreciates gradual change within the political system, a posture that enabled it to avoid government repression and build relationships with other opposition factions.

Yet over the past few years, Kuwaiti politics has grown increasingly divisive, chiefly on domestic issues (especially centered on the prerogatives of the parliament). The rules for parliamentary elections have become as much a matter of contestation as the results, as Kuwaitis have been summoned regularly to the polls in a more polarized climate. As the political debate became increasingly heated, Hadas joined a very diverse coalition pressing for further political opening. Following a successful electoral boycott in December 2012 that resulted in significantly lower voter turnout, that coalition was dealt a setback in parliamentary elections this summer when it called for a second boycott  that was less effective than hoped and led to an exclusion of the coalition from parliament.

This was an environment that allowed events in Egypt to reverberate in Kuwait. And indeed, rising regional tensions more generally began to break apart the post-1990 Kuwaiti consensus on foreign policy issues. Not only did some groups (especially Hadas) criticize the anti-Morsi line taken by the Kuwaiti government, but different reactions to events in Syria and Iran have led to domestic debates within Kuwait. The UAE linked some prominent Kuwaitis to the Brotherhood group it arrested, again providing fuel to Hadas critics who portray it as part of an ambitious regional movement rather than a Kuwaiti political actor. While there has been some discussion within Kuwaiti Brotherhood circles about how much the movement should stake out a position on regional events, the sense of outrage over the overthrow of Morsi and events in Syria has led the main body of the movement to take a far stronger foreign policy line.

Rather than retreating and attempting to deflect claims of its allegiance to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hadas has responded to events in Egypt by escalating its criticisms of both the Egyptian and Kuwaiti governments. Since July 3, Hadas’s Facebook and Twitter pages have been filled with posts condemning the "coup" in Egypt and the anti-democratic actions of the Egyptian government. Those same pages have also been critical of the Kuwaiti government for its support of Morsi’s removal; for instance, when the emir welcomed interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour in a recent state visit to Kuwait, Hadas criticized the reception of a coup-president and the financial largesse he has received.

And Hadas’s adversaries have sensed that the moment is ripe for a strong attack on the movement.

Immediately following Morsi’s removal, Kuwaiti politicians began to accuse Hadas of being subservient to the Brotherhood in Egypt, engaging in terrorism and money laundering, and plotting a coup against the Kuwaiti government. Others called Hadas "dangerous," warning of the Brotherhood’s infiltration of sensitive government ministries, which could be used to spread its influence at the expense of the state. One article reported a growing campaign prior to the parliamentary elections in July to "uproot" the Brotherhood from political life, while political leaders called for the government to confront the movement more forcefully. In the past several weeks, articles in Kuwaiti newspapers have maintained the drumbeat of criticism against Hadas and the Brotherhood. Anonymous sources have accused the movement of corrupt activities such as misusing public funds and manipulating its influence in Kuwaiti institutions for its own benefit.

The government, too, has seized the opportunity to push back against the Brotherhood. Internationally, Kuwait has joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in providing financial and diplomatic support to the Egyptian gov
ernment that replaced the Morsi administration; at home, the government has arrested and deported Egyptians that it accuses of membership in the group. Meanwhile, newspapers hostile to Hadas have reported on a purge being carried out against Brotherhood supporters in the government. Newspapers have quoted anonymous sources claiming that Brotherhood supporters in the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, the Zakat House, and other governmental bodies have been retired or moved to marginalized offices. One source justified the purge as a legitimate defense against a subversive and foreign organization that does not recognize the state. 

The reality is a bit more prosaic, though still a sign of tension: as part of the opposition coalition, Hadas is finding that membership in the movement may be an obstruction for government service for some, and ministers most hostile to Hadas find the climate appropriate to rid themselves of some staff. So while there may be no draconian purge, the public environment is one that has worked against the movement. There is no sign that the government is treating Hadas as a security threat — just the opposite, in fact, as the movement continues to operate openly and vociferously and its leaders evince confidence that it will continue to be regarded more as a political nuisance than a security threat. 

Yet if the reality is slightly tamer than expressed in the sometimes lurid Kuwaiti press, the fallout over Morsi’s removal could have significant repercussions for Kuwaiti politics. For one, the toxic mix of the regime’s support for the Egyptian government, the anonymous accusations against the Kuwaiti Brotherhood, the persistent rumors of purges, however exaggerated, and Hadas’s strident support for Morsi suggests that the relationship between the regime and Hadas could be moving away from its history of tolerance and toward one of deepened domestic conflict. Kuwait’s post-1990 consensus on foreign policy had already begun to fray; regional events have now lent a sharper and bitterer edge to domestic political struggles that had already become divisive and shrill.

Scott Williamson is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012). This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.