The Middle East Channel

Kuwait takes a breather

On July 27 Kuwaitis turned out for their second parliamentary election in a year and sixth in the seven-year reign of the Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah. This election came amidst deepening concerns about the viability of Kuwait’s parliamentary system. The past few years have seen the small emirate buffeted by street protests, electoral engineering, electoral ...

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

On July 27 Kuwaitis turned out for their second parliamentary election in a year and sixth in the seven-year reign of the Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah. This election came amidst deepening concerns about the viability of Kuwait’s parliamentary system. The past few years have seen the small emirate buffeted by street protests, electoral engineering, electoral boycotts, judicial interventions, and the growing sociopolitical polarization that is challenging all Arab states in this time of dramatic political change. Voters seemed torn between dissatisfaction with the performance of the ruling government and worries about the toll political conflict is taking on Kuwait’s social solidarity. Most admit disappointment in the current system which has failed to deliver economic diversification and a strategic vision comparable to the neighboring sister city-states in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. But political confrontation is looking a lot more frightening in light of the fragmenting political order and mounting bloodshed in Syria and Egypt.

The campaign, undertaken in scorching heat and Ramadan fasting, was subdued. Yet the results may give heart to those hoping for more civil politics and a de-escalation of the political struggle between government and opposition.   

Voters punished more inflammatory sectarian politicians and rewarded pragmatists. They turned out some veteran politicians in favor of new and younger faces. The weakening opposition boycott called in protest of the emir’s unilateral change in the electoral system admitted wider tribal representation and some former opposition members into the National Assembly. The return of members of parliament (MPs) from the liberal nationalists and larger tribes has lessened the government’s narrow reliance on the Shiite community: a position which was becoming politically untenable given the sectarian polarization shaped by Sunni-Shiite fault lines in Bahrain and Syria and the Gulf states’ geopolitical competition with Iran. This more inclusive representation and marked increase in voter participation — up to 52 percent from 38 percent in the last "boycott" election — provides a more promising base for gaining the public’s acceptance than the previous loyalist parliament.

The result reflects the dramatic decline in the fortunes of Kuwait’s formidable opposition. Only a year ago the ruling family faced a strongly oppositional parliament, backed by an energetic youth movement, which was beginning to coalesce around the principle of a fully elected government. A significant step in that direction had been accomplished in November 2011 when the scandal-plagued Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed — a royal — was forced out of office over the objection of the emir by a combination of parliamentary pressure and street protests. An unprecedented alliance of liberals and Islamists, city dwellers and tribal populists, turned Kuwait’s Gulf road orange, the color of the reform movement, in rejection of executive fiat, political buyouts, and growing autocratic measures.

The ruling-family-led government used diverse tools to contain this demand to surrender more royal prerogatives to an elected legislature. The emir adeptly enlisted the criminal and constitutional courts to build a legal case for the campaign against the parliamentary opposition, and against the youth activists who had dramatically expanded the scope for contentious politics in Kuwait using social networks and street protests.

In an uncanny echo of Egyptian political developments, two consecutive constitutional court rulings upended the opposition momentum. In June 2012 the court ordered the scandal-plagued 2009 parliament re-instated due to procedural errors in its dissolution by the emir. This effectively nullified the December 2012 election and the oppositional parliament it produced. A year later a second constitutional ruling in June validated an "emergency" decree issued by the emir after the dissolution of the parliament, altering the voting system to the detriment of the opposition.

Youth were targeted, in more ways than one. Recognizing the need to win back this important constituency the Emiri Diwan initiated a campaign under the name "Kuwait listens," to reach out to the younger generation. A National Youth Council was formed and given a prominent public platform to voice its concerns through a national conference attended by the emir and speaker of the parliament. The youth program focused on "quick wins" to establish credibility, identifying youth demands that could be met immediately.

At the same time, prosecutors embarked on an unprecedented campaign to criminalize dissent. According to Human Rights Watch since October 2012 there were 35 prosecutions for "defaming the majesty of the emir." Former MPs were jailed for their speeches and hundreds of young activists were investigated for their critical tweets. As opposition campaigners spent their time assembling legal defenses, the political battle moved from the streets to the courts.

Then in April the ministry of information submitted to parliament a draft media law which proposed holding users of social media to the same standards as regular media. Fines of up to a million dollars could be imposed for rebelling against the ruling system, destabilizing the economy, undermining national unity or offending the constitution.

The government also sought to staunch their declining influence in the tribal areas. The rise of economic populism, led by the charismatic former MP Musallem al-Barrak, had driven this once loyalist constituency into the opposition camp. The ruling family thus undertook a successful campaign to peel away tribal support for the election boycott, relying upon traditional ties with tribal leadership.

There is no question that the legal stratagem and political maneuvers undertaken by the ruling-family led government were effective. Deprived of the parliament through court order then boycott, hounded in the courts, the opposition fell prey to disagreements over tactics. Ideological differences, once managed with some skill, became more intractable as Kuwaiti society divided over Bahrain, Syria, and — significantly — now Egypt.

More fundamentally, the regional momentum for political change has collapsed. When the possibility of citizen-led transformation seemed high a broad swath of Kuwaiti society joined the opposition in the street. Today the street looks rather foreboding with state-backed killing and massed civil divisions in Egypt, and unspeakable death and destruction in Syria. The fears of political chaos and the genuine need to preserve national unity in such a foreboding environment plays to the advantage of the status quo powers in Kuwait: the ruling family, the elite business families, and the minority Shiite community which looks to the ruling family for protection.

In such an environment the opposition now faces a near insurmountable climb. The ability of the ruling family — backed by the courts — to change the rules of the political game has led much of the opposition leadership to escalate their demands to constitutional reform. But this essentially revolutionary position will not find broad acceptance as Kuwaitis seek calm and national unity. The extra-parliamentary strategy of popular mobilization through street protests is now viewed with more circumspection.

The hard opposition is further challenged by its reliance on the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Islamic Constitutional Movement. As elements of the liberal, Salafi, and tribal opposition returned to the parliament in this election, the Brotherhood stood with the boycott. Yet it has also been wrought by internal divisions among urban and tribal members, its traditional leadership and "revolutionary" youth. The dangers of being outside of the parliament are now clear as the Brotherhood movement is under assault in Egypt, and in the Gulf states of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Sensing the improvement in circumstance, the emir has opened the door for reconciliation by taking the important step of pardoning those sentenced under lese majeste statutes. There are indications that some parliamentarians sympathetic to opposition goals are acting as mediators to negotiate an amendment of the electoral law unilaterally promulgated by the emir — a move that might allow the opposition to end its boycott of the parliament.

While none of the underlying political demands that animated protests — an end to political corruption and ineffective governance, the expansion of elected government — have been met, the political center in Kuwait has shifted. Responding to regional developments, Kuwait is taking a step back from the revolutionary tumult of the Arab Spring.

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

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