With Kuwait Twitter Arrests, the Emir’s Gloves Come Off

The story of Twitter user Iyad al-Harbi who was sentenced to two years in jail for “defaming the emir of Kuwait” has been reported by numerous media outlets. Al-Harbi wrote several controversial tweets, but unlike other arrested Twitter users in Kuwait, he did not claim that his account had been hacked to avoid the consequences. Al-Harbi’s name has become known over the past year for being openly critical of the political situation. According to the court decision (published by Sabr online), al-Harbi thought his tweets were not offensive and believed that he had expressed his own opinion respectfully without violating any laws. The court, as expected, is not going to drop the charges considering the language he used to address the emir. Al-Harbi was preaching to the head of state and warning him that he is turning into another dictator.

This sentence is not the first of its kind. Last June, a Twitter user called Nasser al-Ansary received five years in jail for the same charge, but the case was scarcely reported on. Back then, the opposition was still trying to play a game with the authorities and apparently decided to let al-Ansary fight the charges on his own. Kuwaiti newspapers relegated any brief mention of the news to their last pages.

This time, though, al-Harbi has received the needed attention, because of his online and political visibility. Unlike al-Ansary, al-Harbi is a young man from the opposition who was lucky that his case came at a time when diplomacy and negotiations are no longer considered an option in the political arena. The visible tensions and the public clash between political powers in Kuwait have drawn the necessary attention to such a case. More importantly, it has generated a focus on the status of free speech in Kuwait – a right that has long been violated. Those violations have been veiled simply because human rights bodies are pushed to report on the more problematic and oppressive regimes in the region.

If we closely scrutinize annual reports on Kuwait and local media coverage, we can record many cases of violations of free speech. Just like any ambiguous monarchy (although Kuwait is technically not a monarchy), the country was pushed by its western advisors to claim itself a middle democracy, by drawing comparisons with neighboring dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Saddam’s Iraq. With these jail sentences given to young men for writing tweets, the card of democracy no longer seems appealing for the Kuwaiti decision-makers; it is too old and useless!

Being a US ally with a constitution and a parliament, Kuwait was forced to grant more freedoms and reforms during the '60s and '70s after independence. With the power shifts worldwide, political Islam was used to halt such progress and replaced with a continuous social clash between different political powers based on class. Witnessing the way Bahrain has evaded any punishment and has received military guarantees for its continuing oppression, Kuwait is now more encouraged to openly knock down its opposition. Such jail sentences were not expected from a regime that once showed flexibility by changing its prime minister after three years of growing protests.

As the stories of al-Harbi and others are circulated in the media, a discussion on constitutional changes is taking place. The parliament elected last month is mostly dominated by those who do not intend to clash with the government and, more importantly, with the ruling family. Yet, even those parliament members are not in favor of any constitutional changes. MP Ali al-Rashed (a former opposition liberal turned loyalist) stated that the country is living through a tense period and is thus intolerant of such changes. One of the proposed changes may place more restrictions on criticism of the emir and the state. The late elections brought a puppet parliament, and through parliament, a puppet constitution can be created. Kuwaitis will no longer brag to Khalijis about their ‘progressive’ constitution (which is really a limited and an outdated one.)

So is the Arab Spring bringing more freedoms and reforms to the Gulf? Not at this point. There was much hope that a revolution in Bahrain and political reform in Kuwait could change the face of the region. Thanks to Saudi Arabia, such changes will not be passed on and the situation in Syria is enough to keep the attention away from other victims. It is surely important to look closer at the way Gulf rulers use Syria to distract from and repel any criticism of the oppression they are practicing. The only gain, so far, is that people have been more mobilized and politicized, especially the young generation. But if being political will only mean being massacred or jailed, silence can again become an option.

Or, at least, this is how they want the story to end.

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