Kuwait’s Bahraini Scenario

Following the recent arrest of Kuwaiti opposition front man Musalam al-Barrak, one can only wonder what the authorities think they’re doing. Is this an act of political suicide for the small Gulf emirate, which has always bragged about its relative democracy? Barrak’s was not the first arrest of former opposition MPs on charges of defaming the Emir of Kuwait – an act criminalized by the country’s 1962 constitution.

This Tuesday, faced with charges of defaming the Emir, the authorities and the Kuwaiti Emirate, Barrak denied the accusations. On October 15, Barrak rocked Kuwait with a speech he gave at Erada Square in which he addressed the Emir directly. “We will not allow you,” he said addressing the head of the state. The sentence has become a slogan for the opposition; it was later used in social media campaigns and in the October 22 “Dignity March.” Such challenging statements have not been uttered against Kuwaiti authorities and, specifically, against the Emir since the Gulf War. The sentence marked a new phase in the opposition’s power struggle with the Emir – rather than just his cabinet.

Surely, the Kuwaiti opposition’s actions are often contradictory; they claim to protect the constitution, while failing to grasp that their salvation is not embedded in the text. The constitution technically ensures numerous rights that are violated by the authorities, as it still leaves space for censorship and restrictions against the government’s opponents. This inconsistency in the opposition’s performance and rhetoric is the strongest argument wielded against the opposition, not only by the authorities but also by loyal tribes, Shia and liberals.

But where can the authorities really go with these arrests? What comes next, after the arrest of the man who received the largest number of votes in the country’s history? Some Kuwaitis have been drawing comparisons between Kuwait and Bahrain, perhaps in an exaggerated manner. However, a Bahraini scenario is not too far-fetched at this very moment. If the authorities are choosing to provoke a power struggle solely to portray it as a clash between Saudi-rooted tribes and the ruling family, then this may well be Kuwait’s Bahraini scenario.

The tribes of Kuwait surely do not suffer the same level of discrimination as the Shia in Bahrain; they hold some positions of power and enjoy good historical relationships with the ruling family. In fact, after the latest protest, heads of the tribes met with the Emir to restate their loyalty to him. The tribes, however, are feared and discriminated against by the old-money class who wield power both in the economy and politics. The tribal movement is also empowered through its alliance with the Islamists and the support of an enthusiastic youth who are demanding more say by having an elected prime minister.

Earlier this year, the Emir responded well to opposition calls by dissolving parliament and replacing Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed, who was at the center of the clash between authorities and the opposition. Everyone believed that Kuwait was headed on the right path toward reforms. The opposition’s demands following their electoral victory in February were too stark; asking for ministers to be selected by a parliamentary majority was too threatening. In June, the crisis reached new heights when the Emir decided to suspend parliament for two months (another right afforded to him by the constitution). Later, the constitutional court inflamed the country with its decision to dissolve parliament amid claims that the procedures for dissolving the previous parliament were not performed legally.

The Kuwaiti authorities are simply failing to realize the dangerous implications of their actions; the more oppression they practice, the more power they grant to the opposition. The authorities are surely fearful of how far the opposition can go with its demands every time they’re permitted more space and dealt with diplomatically. Unfortunately, the authorities have made their choice already by making this a clash with tribes; it is the classical mentality of ‘divide and conquer.’

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