Unprecedented protest in KuwaitPosted: 24/10/2012
By Alanoud Al-Sharekh, Corresponding Senior Fellow for Regional Politics, Middle East
The unrest that erupted in Kuwait on Sunday was the largest and most violent in the oil-rich emirate’s recent history. Thousands of protesters took to the streets after emir Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah announced changes to Kuwait’s voting system on Friday. Less than a fortnight earlier, the emir had paved the way for snap elections in December by dissolving parliament.
The majority of Sunday’s demonstrators came from Kuwait’s Islamist and tribal opposition, who suspect the measures are an attempt to marginalise them in parliament. Special Forces used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the rally. I watched from my window as crowds attempted to bait the forces by throwing rocks and chanting ‘We will not allow you’ – a reference to one opposition politician’s warning to the emir not to make changes to Kuwaiti legislation. Several demonstrators arrested for participating in an illegal march and for damaging property were released the next day.
Kuwait has been beset by political stalemate for the past few years, but the current episode dates back to June. This was when Kuwait’s Constitutional Court overturned February’s election results, in which the Islamist-led tribal coalition opposition had won a majority of 34 seats in Kuwait’s 50-seat National Assembly. The court surprisingly reinstated the previous parliament.
The most democratically evolved Gulf state, the emirate has the most powerful elected parliament in the region. However, the ruling Sabah monarchy retains control over leading government and executive posts. The parliament and executive have been locked in a destabilising power struggle. The executive has been particularly vulnerable to criticism since a 2011 corruption scandal, in which 15 MPs were alleged to be receiving payments for supporting government policies. The prime minister and government subsequently resigned.
The emir’s recent parliamentary dissolution, of the moribund court-reinstated assembly, is the fifth in Kuwait since he came to power in 2006. Nine Cabinets have resigned during the same period.
Anti-government demonstrators at an earlier rally, on 16 October, warned the emir not to change the electoral boundaries, which they argued was not within his constitutional rights as ruler. This rally – where the ‘We will not allow you’ catchphrase was born – was also notable for its aggressive tone, with unprecedented broadsides launched at the emir for tolerating corruption and for ‘raising his salary from 8 million KD to 50m’. Even the Muslim Brotherhood officially dissociated itself from the comments, and four MPs were later arrested on charges of verbally violating the person of the emir, a criminal offence in Kuwait.
The electoral changes announced by the emir will reduce the numbers of votes each person can cast from four to one. Before the 2006 reforms, Kuwait was divided into 25 districts. Each voter could vote for two candidates, and the two candidates with the most votes in each district were elected to the National Assembly. Since 2006, voters have been able to choose four candidates and each of the five districts has returned ten MPs.
The 2006 reforms were driven by youth activists in an attempt to discourage vote-buying and corruption, but candidates continued to form affiliations and ad hoc coalitions, and exchange preferences. With voters only choosing one candidate, it will be harder to form coalitions, for example, between Islamist and tribal MPs. This single-vote system is being portrayed by some as more in keeping with a global one person-one vote tradition. But opposition members argue that it will allow vote-buying to prosper again, increasing the number of pro-government MPs in office.
The emir’s decree could be overturned by a majority vote in the National Assembly in December, but the opposition has said it will boycott the elections and has preferred to take the route of unauthorised public protests.
This places many liberals and moderate Kuwaitis in an uncomfortable position; while they want greater democracy and reform, they are unhappy to support either lawmakers who break the law, or the use of force on Kuwaiti citizens demonstrating their unhappiness with the emir’s decision. Opposition MPs have engaged in many illegal activities such as storming the National Assembly and reaching political office through tribal primaries, while criticising the government and members of the ruling family for their involvement in corruption.
The trouble in Kuwait, a key US ally, is also set against a backdrop of worsening relations between Gulf states and the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan called on Gulf states this month to stop the Islamist group from plotting to undermine governments in the region.
Nayahan’s comment came after a tussle with Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood government over politician Ahmed Shafiq. Hosni Mubarak’s last premier, Shafiq is wanted on corruption charges in Cairo. But Abu Dhabi, where Shafiq flew shortly after losing the May–June Egyptian presidential election to Mohammed Morsi, has refused to surrender him.
At a press conference on 8 October, Nayahan said Gulf states should withdraw any support from the Brotherhood and should work together to protect themselves from becoming ‘breeding grounds’ for the group.
‘The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in the nation state. It does not believe in the sovereignty of the state,’ he said. He added that Gulf Coopoeration Council (GCC) countries should be on their guard against subversive Muslim Brotherhood activity.
This year the UAE has arrested more than 60 people on charges of planning to overthrow the government (causing an outcry from Muslim Brotherhood parties across the world, especially Kuwait) and the Dubai Chief of Police Dhahi al-Khalfan has repeatedly warned of Muslim Brotherhood plots.
Whether or not he overstates the case, Khalfan has also warned that Kuwait will be the GCC starting point of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired governments similar to that in Egypt, and to a lesser extent Tunisia and Morocco. Gulf leaders will be in a tricky position pondering the next step in Kuwait. If greater numbers take to the streets, how the authorities deal with the protests will be key.