Kuwait: The Paradox of Sustained Instability

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Kuwaiti policemen confront opposition protesters during a demonstration outside the general department of criminal investigation in Salmiya in Kuwait City on 23 November 2011. (Photo: AFP - Yasser al-Zayyat)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, November 24, 2011

The storming of Kuwait’s parliament last week may have been influenced by the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world. But it is unlikely to reach a tipping point soon given the country’s current political and social context.

After Kuwaiti protesters stormed and occupied the Abdullah Al-Salem Hall at the National Assembly on November 16, many commentators were quick to characterize the incident as solely a product of the on-going Arab uprisings.

Indeed, protests in Kuwait are inspired to some degree by the political state of the region. Chants such as, “The people want the downfall of the prime minister,” – particularly when opposition groups occupied the interior of the Parliament – and the emphasis on stemming corruption and the importance of upholding the constitution, echo the events of Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

However, the tipping point of essential factors for a full-blown uprising in Kuwait is far from realized.

Kuwait’s contemporary political system was established by 1962 with the creation of a constitution that structured a parliamentary system. In relation to its neighbors, Kuwait’s parliament has a history of being vocal and active, with moments of criticism directed towards the Al-Sabah royal family.

It is this friction between members of parliament and the ruling family on matters of corruption in the electoral system and the royal family’s involvement in the political system that has led to the dissolution of the National Assembly on a number of occasions.

Since the appointment of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Sabah in February 2006, Mohammed Al-Sabah has been the target of criticism by the current emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah. Parliament has since been dissolved and fresh elections were held three times. Additionally, Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser resigned six times and was subsequently reappointed.

Political parties are banned in Kuwait. Nevertheless, MPs form blocs in order to efficiently push forward their interests. The composition of the current National Assembly since its latest election in 2009 is important to note.

The Independent Bloc, MPs who are more supportive towards the ruling family, dominate with 21 seats. The Islamist Bloc, composed of MPs who represent a Sunni conservative ideology follow with 13 seats. They are followed by the Liberal Bloc who have 6 seats, the Shia Islamist Bloc who have 6 seats, and finally the Populist Shia Bloc who have 3 seats.

In the past three years, the political system has been marked by paralysis as MPs clashed between themselves or with ministers and the prime minister. Opposition MPs, led by Musallam al-Barrak, Waleed al-Tabtabai, Faisal al-Muslim and Jamaan al-Harbash have been more assertive in leading rallies and challenging the prime minister.

Many opposition members are derived from the conservative and Sunni Islamist blocs who use issues related to corruption and the rights of the Bedoun (stateless Arabs) to criticize the government and garner political support from the public.

The current tensions began last December when a number of opposition MPs and their supporters, as well as journalists at the scene, were assaulted by security forces during a rally held at the home of MP Jamaan al-Harbash.

Since then, confrontations between these MPs and ministers have been continuous, leading to the resignation of a number of ministers over the course of the year. The tensions then led to an eruption of sporadic protests at Determination Square near the National Assembly beginning in January 2011.

Matters deteriorated further when information was disclosed in September by the National Bank of Kuwait that at least 350 million American dollars worth of bank transfers had been made to various MPs’ accounts; an amount that many have suggested may be the tip of the iceberg of corrupt payments to elected officials.

Opposition MPs allege that they have documented evidence of the names of MPs who have received bribes and information revealing that members of the government issued the payments to influence parliament voting. In particular, the money may have been used to leverage the result of a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser in June – the third to be made in the span of a year and one in which he only narrowly survived.

Investigations by the public prosecutor into the allegations of bribes have been on-going and the results are yet to be made public. Opposition MPs have attempted to grill the prime minister and other ministers in an open session on various occasions, but have routinely failed to gain enough votes for the questioning sessions.

Moreover, the government has been successful in getting the constitutional court to rule that the latest questioning against the prime minister lacked legal validity – a verdict that members of the opposition bloc have denounced.

With this disclosure and allegations of massive bribes, protests at Determination Square consistently take place on Wednesdays and the opposition bloc has called for either the resignation of the government or the dissolution of parliament over the corruption and bribery scandal.

The day before the events of November 16, a third questioning motion against the prime minister failed to pass and was postponed until November 22. Large-scale protests were called for and boycotts and mass resignations of parliamentary sessions were threatened by the opposition. Charges of betraying the constitution and the public were expressed against MPs who voted against the questioning.

Then came the storming of the parliament. Hundreds of protesters, consisting of a large number of young Kuwaitis, gathered in Determination Square. Speeches were made by activists and supporters of opposition MPs. What made this day different from other Wednesdays was what happened after. Some organizers, including MPs, decided to march and gather in front of the home of the prime minister to demand his resignation.

During their march the protesters were confronted by security forces. Protesters said tear gas and beatings were used to quell the rally. Protesters then decided to change course and meet in front of the National Assembly to voice their outrage.

The situation unraveled as emotions ran high, resulting in the storming of the gates and the “occupation” of the Abdullah Al-Salem Hall for a number of minutes. Video and photographs of the event show that protesters chanted for the downfall of the government and individuals danced on top of tables holding the Kuwaiti flag, including MPs from the opposition bloc. A number of security forces and demonstrators were injured during the process.

The next day an emergency meeting was held by the cabinet and was chaired by the Emir Sheikh Sabah. It ended with his call to the interior ministry and national forces “to take all measures and preparations necessary to confront whoever undermines the security of the country and public order.”

The storming of the parliament and its short occupation were termed a major “provocation” and “chaotic behavior” that endangered the country, while opposition MPs deny any damage was caused by the protesters, arguing the situation would not have escalated if it were not for the attacks by security forces.

Legal action by the parliament office and the public prosecution has been initiated against those involved in the action, including MPs. So far 32 individuals have been arrested and more than 200 are expected to be charged. Also, the Ministry of Interior has installed metal barriers along Determination Square to limit its size and has stated that all rallies now require permits to occur.

Condemnations against the opposition and the storming have been made by various influential unions, 140 renowned Kuwaiti professionals and academics, non-opposition MPs, and the owners of 47 major diwaniyas (reception halls).

Interestingly enough, rumors swirled around social media sites that foreign Gulf nations were involved in the events. This was emphasized by the allegations of a non-opposition MP, Faisal Al-Duwaisan, during a phone conversation with the BBC in which he stated that 60 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nationals have been arrested. This allegation was quickly denied by Interior Minister Sheikh Ahmad Al-Humoud Al-Sabah and the matter is still being investigated.

Now, a state of political uncertainty and stalemate exists in the country. The emir has directly stated that he will neither dissolve the parliament nor accept the resignation of the prime minister. Opposition MPs have called for more protests during the next few weeks, and it seems that every side is entrenched in their position.

In taking into account what has occurred, the reasons why this differs from the other uprisings that are occurring in the region and why this is less likely to erupt into a full-blown mass movement are twofold.

First, the Kuwaiti citizen has a comprehensive cradle-to-grave welfare system and the government has enough revenue from its substantial oil resources to allow it to stave off movements of major discontent such as have been seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain. This past January, the emir granted 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars (US$3,599) to every Kuwaiti citizen, as well as free food rations for 14 months.

Secondly, for most of the Kuwaiti population, the opposition movement’s actions are also viewed as corrupt, lacking a comprehensive policy along political, economic, and social lines that appeals to the general masses. The persistent conflict within the political system has generated an exhausted disenchantment and apathy towards the entire political system.

There is another wrinkle. The holistic structure of the system that defines Kuwaiti society, in turn restrains these protests from being substantial and progressive. Kuwaiti society is separated between the Kuwaiti and the expatriate, where the former has many more rights than the latter.

Akin to social protests in Israel, the Kuwaiti movement is inherently flawed because no responsibility is placed on the discrimination of non-Jews, non-Zionists, and the Palestinians within and outside Israel. Protests in Kuwait are restricted to the Kuwaiti citizen only and do not acknowledge the inequality of the non-Kuwaiti, beyond the Bedoun, experiences.

Obviously, there is a stark difference between Kuwait and Israel. Israel’s situation involves a history of ethnic cleansing by the Zionists, who are mainly foreigners, and the continued denial of the original inhabitants, the Palestinians, their inalienable rights.

In Kuwait, the situation is reversed in the sense that the local inhabitants do not grant equalities to the foreigner. Not to mention that the repression in Israel is far worse than it is in Kuwait. Therefore, in such a context, a protest that does not articulate its aims completely and does not embrace an ideology of equal rights for all is a protest that is doomed to fail.

For the short-term at least, Kuwait seems to exist in a paradox of sustained instability wherein the country will sputter along, flirting with the brink, but never truly falling into total unrest.

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