Middle East

Kuwait opposition determined to seek greater rights

Opposition supporters protest in Kuwait (4 November 2012)
Image caption The opposition protest temporarily blocked a main road outside Mishref

Kuwait has not faced widespread unrest since the Arab Spring uprisings erupted last year across the Middle East, but opposition supporters are still determined to press their demands for greater democratic rights, reports BBC Arabic's Khaled Ezzelarab.

On Sunday night, hundreds of vehicles came to a standstill as the police diverted traffic away from Kuwait City's main road along the waterfront, where opposition activists had planned to hold a demonstration.

It caused a traffic jam unlike any that Sayyed had seen in his 10 years as a taxi driver.

Sayyed, who asked that his surname be withheld, is a foreign migrant like almost all taxi drivers in Kuwait, and he feared that he might get into trouble for talking about politics if his identity was revealed.

An Egyptian, he rejected suggestions that the political upheaval in Kuwait was a continuation of the Arab Spring which had seen his compatriots overthrow President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

"In Egypt people revolted because they had nothing, no food, no money... but here they have everything," he said.

His dismissive view of the protesters as a group of people who were "only interested in political gains" rather than having genuine grievances is shared by many of the foreign nationals who make up nearly two-thirds of Kuwait's three million-strong population.

But for the activists who were trying to find a way to cross the police barriers, this view was almost insulting.

"Of course we're better off than other people in the region, but does this mean we should forget about our political rights?" asked Salem Abdul Aziz.

He spoke as he walked with friends away from the car park where they had left their vehicle in the hope of being able to reach the protest by foot.

"We want freedom like anyone else, and we will get it."

Test of will

The current crisis in Kuwait was sparked by a decree issued by the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al Sabah, on 19 October, which amended the election law that will be applied in parliamentary elections scheduled for next month.

The opposition - comprising Islamist, liberal and tribal groups - said the changes favoured pro-government candidates. They also vowed to boycott the elections and organise protests until the emir retracted his decree.

Image caption Security forces successfully prevented protesters marching through Kuwait City

Over the past couple of weeks there have been a series of demonstrations by opposition supporters.

After one on 21 October saw tens of thousands take to the streets and many injured as security forces broke it up with tear gas and stun grenades, the government banned public gatherings of more than 20 people.

The protest planned for Sunday night, to which Mr Abdul Aziz was heading, was therefore going to be a test of will for both government and opposition.

The interior ministry took a firm stance, saying it would take all measures to prevent the demonstration.

It deployed the police and National Guard along Arabian Gulf Street in unprecedented numbers and said it would use the army if necessary.

The opposition refused to back down and promised that the rally would be bigger than any of those held in recent weeks.

But as Mr Abdul Aziz and his friends unsuccessfully tried to find a way to bypass the police sealing off the area, the situation seemed hopeless for the opposition.

Venue change

After an hour or so of futile efforts, word came in that the protest organisers had an alternative plan.

Using social media websites, the protesters informed each other that the rally would be held at a new location; the Kuwait International Fairgrounds near Mishref, about 20km (12 miles) away from the capital.

Image caption The organisers of the demonstration used social media to tell people of the new location

Hundreds of activists started to make their way using 4x4 vehicles, so popular in the Gulf countries, trying to reach the new location before the police could seal it off.

As the long queues of vehicles progressed slowly through the crowded highway, police cars were racing along the emergency lane to the same destination while their colleagues monitored the scene from the helicopters hovering above.

By 20:00 enough people had gathered at the Kuwait International Fairgrounds for the organisers to start the march.

Mostly they were young men, but there were also many older men and some women.

They converged around Mussallam al-Barrak, a prominent opposition leader who was arrested last week for allegedly insulting the emir and was subsequently released on bail.

His speech was short but fiery as usual. He accused the government of bringing in scores of foreign troops from nearby Jordan to put down the protests, a charge that was readily accepted by the demonstrators but which the authorities in Kuwait and Jordan would later deny.

Rival claims

As the march moved ahead the highway became completely blocked in both directions, and just a few minutes later tear gas missiles came flying down.

As they ran away from the smoke to one direction, they found themselves running into another cloud of tear gas fired by policemen blocking the road ahead.

Image caption It was not long before security forces fired tear gas to disperse the crowd

The crowd dispersed as individual protesters tried to find their way out of the suffocating smoke.

Some stayed in groups and managed to cross a fence into a nearby open field, only to be chased by the police.

"Why should they use such violence when they can see there are women and elderly people in the crowd?" shouted a young man as he passed by me.

But later in the evening opposition figures were claiming on social and mainstream media that the protest had been a success.

In a sense it was; as they managed to keep their word and hold the rally despite all the security measures.

On the other hand, pro-government newspapers were also claiming victory the next day, because the authorities had succeeded in preventing a protest being held in the capital and had limited the turnout in Mishref.

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