By Iran Review
By Hassan Ahmadian
The Persian Gulf Sheikdom, Kuwait, has been the scene of unprecedented political tensions in October 2012. Protesters numbering between 30,000-100,000 according to independent and opposition sources accepted the opposition’s call by taking to the streets on October 21. They also clashed with Kuwaiti riot police. The clashes left about 100 protesters wounded in addition to about 10 police while a number of prominent opposition figures and their supporters were also arrested. The question is “what has been the content of the country’s reforms which infuriated the opposition and why Kuwaiti Emir [Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah] so adamantly insists on their implementation?”
The year 2006, witnessed the last parliamentary election in Kuwait on the basis of the country’s old election law. During that year, many political forces and currents chose “we want five constituencies” as their motto in order to force the government to reduce the number of election constituencies from 25 to five. After the inauguration of the new parliament, the election law was amended. As a result, there were only five constituencies in subsequent elections in 2008, 2009, and 2011. The development, which was expected to do away with political hardships resulting from the former election law, gradually strengthened the social base of Kuwait’s Salafi – tribal opposition. Subsequently, the opposition boosted its activities against the government and the number of impeachment cases against ministers increased in an unprecedented manner compared to previous terms of the parliament. Under pressure exerted on him by the opposition and in the hope of changing the composition of the next parliament – whose members had been elected in 2009 – in favor of lawmakers favoring him, the Kuwaiti Emir dissolved the parliament in December 2011. However, on the contrary of what the Emir and other members of the ruling family aspired, the new parliament which opened in 2012, was dominated by Salafi and tribal elements who managed to win 35 seats out of a total number of 50 parliamentary seats.
The first measure taken by the new parliament was to oppose reinstatement of Nasser Al-Mohammed as the country’s prime minister and he was subsequently deposed from his post. The first five months of the parliament’s work in 2012 has had no precedence in the whole history of Kuwait in terms of political and ethnic tensions that have followed inauguration of the new parliament. In addition to the prime minister, some other ministers of Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah’s cabinet were also impeached by the lawmakers who did not give them their vote of confidence. In addition, efforts made to enact Islamic laws (of course, as interpreted by Salafi lawmakers) as well as opposition to all symbols and signs of the Western life in Kuwaiti society gradually turned out to be a regular trait of the new Kuwaiti parliament. In June 2012 and while incessant tension had marred the general political atmosphere in Kuwait, the Constitutional Court – probably prodded by the Emir of Kuwait – ruled that the parliament emerging from 2012 election was not legitimate. The court authorities argued that the government which had dissolved the previous parliament, which came out of 2009 election, had already resigned before doing so. Therefore, dissolution of the parliament and subsequent elections for a new parliament had been illegal. Following that argument, the Kuwaiti parliament was dissolved and tension reached its peak. Since that time, the opposition figures have organized many demonstrations and raised their expectations. Muslim Mohammed Al-Barrak, the Salafi and radical member of the Kuwaiti parliament, addressed a demonstration attended by about protesters in front of the parliament, noting that the opposition was bent on pursuing the cause of establishing a “constitutional state.” If that happens, the Emir of Kuwait will have to delegate many of its powers to the country’s parliament.
As a result of the aforesaid developments, the ruling family of Kuwait has been trying to find a way to reduce the power of the opposition in the parliament and in doing so, has come up with the option of reforming the country’s election law. The Emir of Kuwait announced on October 20, 2012, that he had ordered the government to issue a mandate for the realization of justice and doing away with negative effects of the existing election law whose consequences were seen in the previous three terms of the country’s parliament. The next day, the government moved to amend Article 2 of the election law. According to the amendment, every Kuwaiti citizen can only voted for one candidate – in contrast to the previously four candidates. This change will reduce the number of organized votes cast by Kuwaiti tribes and supporters of Salafi currents in Kuwait both inside and outside the country. One day later, a huge demonstration, which had no precedence in the history of Kuwait, was held on October 21. The protest had been organized by all Kuwaiti opposition groups whose heads had gathered at the office of Ahmed al-Sadoun, the current speaker of the Kuwaiti National Assembly. Under these conditions the question is in which direction Kuwait is actually moving. Three points should be taken into account when asking that question.
Firstly, unlike the past, the Kuwaiti opposition’s main goal is to reduce the power of the Emir and other members of the royal family. This has been quite evident in verbal attacks of the opposition figures against Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the Deputy Chairman of the National Guards of Kuwait and brother-in-law of the Emir, as well as other members of the royalty. According to the Kuwaiti law, any kind of insult against the royalty is a crime. As a result, four former representatives of the Kuwaiti opposition have been arrested on charges of insulting the royal family and a number of their supporters as well as prominent opposition figures are being prosecuted. It goes without saying that under such circumstances withdrawal of the Kuwaiti Emir on the election law reforms will further embolden the opposition and strengthen their resolve to go on with their plan to push for a “constitutional state.” This will, however, bipolarize Kuwait’s political atmosphere and pave the way for multiple possibilities.
Secondly, the Kuwaiti opposition has shown that it has a great potential to mobilize the country’s public opinion against the Emir and the Royal family, and has especially powerful influence on the Kuwaiti Bedouin tribes. The political opponents of the Kuwaiti Emir, most of them Salafi elements, are taking advantage of domestic and foreign platforms and especially rely on the support accorded to them by Saudi Arabia, in order to flaunt their power at the royal family. As a result, they are by no means shy in their public addresses to protesters to note that they will pursue to reduce the power of Al-Sabah family in the future Kuwaiti parliament. Of course, the ability to mobilize the public opinion cannot, by itself, mean that the power of the opposition outdoes that of the ruling family. In addition to support from the royalty, the Kuwaiti Emir still enjoys the backing of many tribes as well as the country’s Sunni majority. At the same time, the country’s Shias as well as liberal figures have also taken sides with the Emir under the current circumstances. All these facts prove that in addition to his control over the National Guard and the security forces of Kuwait, the Emir is also able to mobilize remarkable sections of the Kuwaiti citizenry. If he has not done this so far, it is out of fears about possible confrontation between his opponents and proponents. At any rate, continued pressure from the opposition and escalating tension may finally make the Emir resort to this option.
The third point, which is somehow related to the second one above, is that sectarianism is undoubtedly one of the dimensions of the ongoing political tensions in Kuwait. Having close relations with Iran was one of the main points which led to frequent impeachments of the former Kuwaiti prime minister, Nasser Al-Mohammed. Conflict with Iran and other Shias in the region, including the Kuwaiti Shias that account for 20 percent of the country’s population is an indispensable part of the discourse followed by radical Salafi figures who are currently accounting for the main force of the opposition in Kuwait. This issue, on the one hand, reveals the regional aspect of the crisis in Kuwait in which Saudi-backed Salafis are pit against Shias, while, on the other hand, proves that political developments in the Arab country can change course in a new direction. Such a development is posing a major threat to traditional social texture of Kuwait which has been traditionally characterized with religious tolerance.
In view of the above facts, the future outlook cannot be predicted with precision. In the crisis which surrounds current efforts to amend the country’ election law, any withdrawal by the Kuwaiti Emir will embolden his opponents and will increase their demands for the creation of a “constitutional states.” Such a state will not be necessarily democratic, though it may be apparently installed through democratic means, because such a state will not treat religious minorities (especially Shias) on equal standing and as equal citizens. On the contrary, if the opposition retreats and fails to make the royal family reform the election law, tension will soar in the society. Banning elections cannot be used by the opposition as a means of making the Emir to go back over his word. But has the opposition another means to resort to? The unprecedented protest held on October 21, was apparently the harbinger of a major development in the political scene of Kuwait. It will also provide the opposition with more means to exert pressure on the government. However, will such a tool (massive demonstrations) make the Emir withdraw from its position? A clear answer to this question will be certainly given within the month which remains before the next parliamentary elections are held (on December 1).
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Tehran and Expert on Middle East Issues