The Middle East Channel

Kuwait’s balancing act

On Sunday, Kuwaitis staged what is thought to be the largest protest in the country’s history. Tens of thousands responded to the call for a "March of Dignity" in rejection of an emergency decree issued by Emir Sabah al-Ahmed revising electoral laws. Chanting, "we will not let you" they were met by security forces equally ...

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Kuwaitis staged what is thought to be the largest protest in the country’s history. Tens of thousands responded to the call for a "March of Dignity" in rejection of an emergency decree issued by Emir Sabah al-Ahmed revising electoral laws. Chanting, "we will not let you" they were met by security forces equally determined to enforce the interior ministry ban on marches in Kuwait City. As the tear gas clears and the crowds disperse, Kuwaitis can agree that this was an unprecedented event. But oddly, after this dramatic show of brinksmanship there is no more clarity about where Kuwait is headed and how it will resolve its long political standoff.

The confrontation proved a test of strength and unity between two sides that have unsteady stores of it. The ruling family has been back on its heels since a corruption scandal was seized upon by the parliamentary opposition and its youthful allies to force the resignation of the unpopular Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, in November 2011, and then to elect a strongly oppositional parliament two months later. Al-Sabah found an unexpected reprieve when the 2012 parliament was voided after just four months due to a technical ruling by the constitutional court negating the dissolution of the previous parliament.

When efforts to revive the corruption-compromised 2009 parliament failed due to opposition, the Al-Sabah led government again turned to the constitutional court to review the country’s election law. But the courts showed surprising independence in declining to declare the electoral districting unconstitutional. Faced with an electoral system that seemed certain to return the opposition, Emir Sabah al-Ahmed took matters into his own hands. Warning of the threat of "chaotic sedition that could jeopardize our country (and) undermine our national unity," he ordered the cabinet to change the voting rules in advance of parliamentary elections to be held on December 1.

The emir’s invocation of sedition did not come in a vacuum. Earlier in the week the firebrand opposition leader Musallem al-Barrak stood before a large crowd of protesters in front of the parliament and challenged the emir directly: "We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy." This audacious act threatened to break the social code — and constitutional order — elevating the emir above the political fray and safeguarding his unquestioned authority. The government seemed loath to directly confront the popular former member of parliament (MP), but they did arrest three others who had similarly criticized the emir. Reports in the press suggested that the ministry of interior was also seeking greater control over Kuwait’s vibrant and boisterous social media by investigating some 800 twitter users for criticizing the emir.

Al-Barrak’s challenge launched a popular new protest chant — "we will not let you" — but it likewise threatened to divide the opposition. Kuwait’s opposition is composed of a diverse group of tribal populists, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi Islamists, liberal nationalists, and leftists. Strong class and ideological differences separate them, as does the electoral competition among them. Many liberals and Salafi former parliamentarians were angered by what they believed to be an unnecessary provocation of the emir. They were also chastened by a first taste of conflict: a confrontation with security forces following al-Barrak’s speech that resulted in the arrest of several youth activists, including the son of the former speaker of the parliament, Ahmed Saadoun.

Still the day following the emir’s speech saw the opposition coalescing with pledges to boycott the parliamentary election and to plan a march in protest. They were aided by the resonance of the election reform issue among young activists and movement politicians. Kuwait’s 2006 electoral law has a storied history. In 2006 Kuwaiti youth initiated a campaign for political reform and targeted the electoral system, decrying Kuwait’s 25 small districts as beset by vote buying and captured by tribes. Reducing the number of districts to five, it was thought, would discourage corruption and elevate citizens to more national issues. The "We want Five" campaign was a landmark in the Gulf for its use of the social media of the time — blogs — and for its success in setting the agenda for parliamentarians and ultimately the government. Movement politicians had more pragmatic reasons for opposing the changes. By reducing the number of votes Kuwaitis hold from four to one, the new system would disrupt the complex system of vote trading that Kuwait’s politicians use to build alliances across political divides, endangering their ability to create a viable opposition.

Organizers of the March for Dignity tapped into the national reformist ethos and youthful activism of the 2006 campaign. The orange color chosen for the march established the continuity with the earlier electoral reform campaign and the more liberal and urban constituencies that had championed it, linking them to the more Islamist and more tribal activists of today. The theme of "dignity" elided the differences among them and resonated with the citizen demands of the early Arab Spring. Protesters demonstrated their expertise in civil disobedience and nonviolent struggle through speeches and videos quoting Gandhi and playing the U.S civil rights era protest song "We shall overcome."

The plans for the "March of Dignity" called for protesters to gather at three different spots, distinguished by electoral district and staffed with protest leaders, medics, and human rights observers. The marchers were then to converge on the Seif Palace, the seat of government and offices of the Al-Sabah leadership. Both the march through the city and its destination were calculated provocations, meant to indicate the people’s autonomy and defiance of government strictures.

The decision by the Al-Sabah led government to confront the protesters directly with some force caught many by surprise. Yet despite the emir’s pledge to preserve national unity in the face of tribal and sectarian forces, he was in fact facing a much broader alliance. Thus the decision to shut down the protest may have been calculated to break that fractious coalition, and perhaps to empower the radicals.

His October 19 speech announcing the decision to reform the electoral system gives some indication of the government strategy. In it he reminded Kuwaitis of the toll such "unreal crises" made on development plans and the country’s standing. His message was reinforced by the decline in the Kuwait stock market in reaction to the protest earlier in the week. The invocation of loss resonates with many Kuwaitis who have seen their country passed by upstart emirates with more stable governments, but it especially speaks to the well off urban Kuwaitis who have more to lose. Their sentiment acts as a check on some in the opposition, especially those in the liberal nationalist camp, whose constituents fear the empowerment of the tribal populists.

The decision to stand tough, even with some violence, could also be part of a strategy to radicalize part of the opposition. In his speech, the emir spoke eloquently of the dangers of division and sectarianism. While some Shiites have joined the nationalists, mostly the exclusively urban Shiite political groups are remaining close to the Al-Sabah regime, fearful of the anti-Shiite sentiments expressed by some Salafi MPs in the opposition camp. The dependence of Al-Sabah on this voting constituency has increased as the opposition in parliament has grown. Thus mobilization against Al Sabah on sectarian grounds is a temptation for some in the opposition. The regional context of Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) competition with Iran facilitates the use of this sectarian rhetoric. Former Salafi MP Waleed al-Tabtaba’I tapped into this sentiment in a tweet portraying the electoral reform as a plot to install Iranian hegemony via a rigged parliamentary majority. Such portrayals of the Al-Sabah regime as disloyal may have precipitated Tabtaba’l’s arrest on Sunday.

Still there is some evidence that this strategic suppression may backfire. Kuwaitis have a reverence for constitutional order and expect healthy constraints on power. In the past two years overreach by security forces — an attack on a diwaniya gathering in 2010, the beating of student protesters in 2011 — pushed the key swing bloc, the liberal nationalists, back into the opposition fold. It was this broad coalition, backed by street activists, who forced the hand of the emir in accepting the resignation of the prime minister the very week he vowed never to do so.   

To force more concessions and to achieve the increased parliamentary control they are seeking, the opposition needs to show restraint and strategic timing: to earn the public’s trust in their leadership. The Arab Spring across the region shows ample examples of the dire consequences of a fragmented and radicalized opposition. Kuwaitis are walking a dangerous tightrope and they do indeed have much to lose.

And the entire Gulf region is tuning in to the spectacle. The Gulf twittersphere was full of commentary on the clashes: Saudi youth activists cheering on the Kuwaiti marchers streaming below the iconic Kuwait towers; Dubai Chief and anti-Muslim Brotherhood campaigner Dahi Khalfan asserting the primacy of Al-Sabah. The overwhelming majority of GCC citizens are not seeking revolution, but to   harness the energy of the Arab Spring and its promise of citizen empowerment for the cause of reform? Kuwait may have lost its luster in the years of stalemate, but on Sunday night it proved its politics still have the ability to captivate.

Kristin Smith Diwan is an assistant professor of comparative and regional studies at the American University School of International Service.

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