Kuwait: Political crisis at critical juncture

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Protesters running from tear gas during a demonstration against proposed changes to election laws in KuwaitImage source, Reuters
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Kuwait has witnessed unprecedented protests against electoral changes

Kuwait is in the midst of an intensifying political crisis that poses the greatest risk to the country since its liberation after the 1991 Gulf War.

Beset by a stalemate that has seen off nine governments since 2006, the basic division revolves around a struggle for power between the elected National Assembly and a Cabinet appointed by the Emir.

While Kuwait's difficulties are distinct from the wider regional upheaval, the Arab Spring has energised the popular and political opposition and crossed hitherto-sacrosanct red lines of permissible dissent.

The result is a showdown between the ruling Sabah family and ever-larger and increasingly assertive segments of the Kuwaiti population.

The current deadlock began in the summer of 2011 when youth groups began calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed Al Sabah, a nephew of the Emir.

Their weekly demonstrations escalated in September when news broke of a massive political corruption scandal involving the transfer of funds to 16 of Kuwait's 50 MPs allegedly in return for supporting government policies.

Tensions peaked in November after the Constitutional Court blocked a parliamentary attempt to question the prime minister over the scandal, and around 100 protesters, including MPs, stormed and briefly occupied the National Assembly building.

Although the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, publicly vowed not to give in to street pressure, tens of thousands of Kuwaitis responded by joining rallies calling for the prime minister's removal.

A massive demonstration on 29 November drew more than 50,000 people and decisively forced the Emir's hand.

'Coup against constitution'

The prime minister was replaced by his deputy, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak Al Sabah, another senior member of the ruling family, and parliament was dissolved pending fresh elections in February 2012. These resulted in an opposition landslide as predominantly tribal and Islamist candidates won 34 seats.

Image source, AFP
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Former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad Al Sabah resigned in 2011

The 2012 parliament ran for four turbulent months until it suddenly was declared invalid on 20 June. MPs clashed repeatedly with government ministers and forced the resignation of the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour.

Spiralling political tensions led the Emir to suspend the National Assembly for one month on 18 June, but this was superseded two days later by a ruling by the Constitutional Court that annulled the February election and reinstated the parliament that had been dissolved in December 2011.

This stunning decision plunged Kuwait into a summer of uncertainty and recrimination as opposition figure-heads accused the court of bowing to government pressure and undertaking "a coup against the constitution."

During July and August the reinstated parliament twice tried to reconvene, but on each occasion failed to achieve a quorum as the majority of MPs boycotted the sessions.

After declaring the reinstated parliament "clinically dead" in mid-August, the government further provoked the opposition by asking the Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of the electoral law.

This concerned amendments made in 2006 which divided Kuwait into five parliamentary constituencies, each returning 10 MPs. These replaced a 1981 amendment that had divided Kuwait into 25 constituency districts in a move widely portrayed as a government attempt to gerrymander support in its favour.

The 2006 reform came after prolonged public campaign led by youth movements in a precursor to the networked Arab Spring generation of protesters. Hence, the government's attempt to roll back the law reopened old fault-lines in Kuwaiti politics.

Amid scenes of high drama with riot police surrounding the building, on 25 September the Constitutional Court rejected the government's effort to redraw the political boundaries. On 7 October, the Emir again dissolved the (reinstated) parliament, but delayed announcing the date of the next election until 20 October.

This raised opposition suspicions that Sheikh Sabah might try to change the electoral law by decree - which he did, on 19 October. The amendment will reduce the number of votes cast by each Kuwaiti from four to one.

'Abyss of autocracy'

Political reaction has been swift. Most opposition groups and MPs from across the spectrum have pledged to boycott the forthcoming election, and Kuwait faces a volatile return to street politics.

Thousands attended a demonstration in front of the National Assembly on 15 October, and witnessed leading opposition politician Musallam al-Barrak address the Emir in unprecedented terms.

Al-Barrak, who received the highest number of votes in Kuwaiti political history in February, stated that "We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy… We no longer fear your prisons and your baton sticks," while the crowd defiantly chanted "we will not allow you, we will not allow you."

Al-Barrak's incendiary remarks sent shock waves through a country where public criticism of the Emir is taboo. Riot police moved in to break up the gathering and detained a number of protesters, among them the eldest son of veteran opposition MP and former Speaker Ahmed al-Saadoun.

The public prosecutor also instigated charges against al-Barrak, arresting three other opposition politicians who had taken part in an earlier rally on 10 October. Thus, political tensions already were at boiling point even before the Emir announced his decision to amend the electoral law.

Another mass rally on 21 October was one of the largest in Kuwait's history, drawing up to 100,000 demonstrators who engaged in running battles with riot police while again chanting 'We will not allow you.'

This amounted to a show of mass defiance to the ruling family, which had taken the unprecedented step of issuing a statement calling for public obedience to the Emir. Coming just a week after Musallam al-Barrak's intervention, the Emir's authority now has been challenged in new and potentially dangerous ways.

Kuwaitis have been here before. In 1986, then-Emir Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad Al Sabah suspended parliament and severely curtailed civil liberties and freedom of association.

Three years later, an energetic grassroots campaign to restore democracy began to exert real pressure on the ruling family. Early in 1990, the Emir attempted to take the sting out of the protests by installing a watered-down National Assembly.

Most Kuwaitis rejected the move as unconstitutional and refused to take part in the ensuing elections, and a major crisis was only stalled by Saddam Hussein's invasion on 2 August. This year's stalemate has obvious parallels in the standoff between the ruling family and public and political opinion.

However, it is complicated by the fact that the predominantly Islamist opposition largely has failed to present a credible alternative vision; their short-lived parliamentary dominance was marred by political score-settling and populist initiatives, such as a move to introduce the death penalty for blasphemy.

Critical time

Tense weeks lie ahead in Kuwait in the run-up to the 1 December vote. The country has long been at the forefront of democratic evolution in the Gulf. Kuwaitis are intensely protective of their constitutional and political rights, and will oppose any renewed attempt to water them down.

With neither the ruling family nor the opposition in any mood for compromise, there seems little prospect for a negotiated way out of the impasse.

Image source, AFP
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Kuwaitis defied an order not to participate in a protest on 15 October

Instead, the gloves have now come off on both sides, with the rising tide of opposition demanding nothing short of an elected government and a game-changing end to Al Sabah dominance of executive power.

The Emir's immediate response was to call in the heads of leading tribes to receive their pledges of allegiance and loyalty. Falling back on such displays of traditional rulership is a sign that the ruling family is struggling to adapt to the zeitgeist of popular empowerment moving so powerfully through the region.

The coming months will hold important lessons for the future of monarchy in the region more generally.

For they will signify if ruling families are willing voluntarily to cede meaningful levels of control to elected institutions, or whether expressions of popular support for reforms will be resisted and, as in Bahrain, violently suppressed.

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is Co-Director of the Kuwait Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme, Chatham House.

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