As Kuwait gears up to celebrate its National and Liberation days today and tomorrow respectively, a festering political crisis casts its shadow over the festive atmosphere. Faced with a popular opposition movement demanding democratic reform and an end to corruption, the Kuwaiti government has responded with repressive measures that threaten to undermine the relative openness of the country’s political system.
In October last year, the Emir unilaterally amended the Elections Law with the goal of altering the outcome of parliamentary elections. The decision was followed by mass protests calling for its reversal, most of which were dispersed with “excessive force” in the words of Human Rights Watch.
When elections were held according to the amended law, a diverse array of political and social groups called for their boycott, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in the country’s history. The parliament thus elected has shown itself to be fervently pro-government, and has moved to introduce repressive legislation such as the stiffening of penalties for those convicted of insulting the Emir.
An increasing number of activists and ex-MPs have been tried on this charge, with some having received hefty prison sentences (10 years in one case). The conflict has reached an impasse, with the government refusing to concede on the issue of the Elections Law and political reform, and the opposition threatening to escalate protests through strikes and civil disobedience.
The struggle between Kuwait’s rulers and popular opposition is nothing new, having been the defining characteristic of the country’s politics since early in the 20th century. That being said, popular participation in government has deep roots in Kuwait, and Kuwaitis have traditionally considered it to be a right that the ruling family is obliged to recognise. This political culture has ensured that conflict between the ruling family and the opposition has usually been resolved by modi vivendi that allows for the sharing of power.
The National and Liberation days evoke two instances of such power sharing agreements. In the late 1950s, Arab nationalist activism in Kuwait was at its peak, and became a cause of concern for the ruling family. When a mass rally in 1959 called for an end to ‘tribal rule’ in the shaikhdom, the government cracked down, closing down all clubs and publications.
This situation persisted until shortly before Kuwait’s independence in 1961, when the ruler called for reconciliation with the nationalist opposition. The government was in need of the educated nationalists to staff nascent state institutions, a need that became more acute when an Iraqi claim to Kuwait posed an existential threat to the fledgling country. Out of this reconciliation came the 1962 constitution, which was drafted by a popularly elected constituent council.
With its elected parliament and its royally appointed prime minister, the constitutional framework embodies Kuwait’s tradition of power sharing. This document remains the main reference point for both ruling family and opposition in the current crisis, even as many oppositionists call for amendments that would bring about greater democracy.
Despite several attempts to free itself of the constraints posed by the constitution, the ruling family has always been compelled by popular pressure to return to it. This is apparent in the restoration of Kuwait’s constitution and parliament following its liberation from Iraqi occupation in 1991.
The Emir suspended both in 1986, and a popular movement took shape several years later to call for their return. When Iraqi troops invaded in 1990, the Kuwaiti opposition turned its efforts towards liberating its country, but did not forget its previous demands.
In the 1991 Jeddah Conference, representatives of Kuwait’s various political groups reaffirmed their loyalty to the Al Sabah family in return for a promise to return to constitutional rule following liberation. International pressure also played a vital role in ensuring that this promise was kept.
Today, many Kuwaitis view the government’s conduct as a departure from the principle of power sharing enshrined within the constitution. Moreover, due to the boycott of parliamentary elections by the opposition, a large proportion of Kuwaitis are currently excluded from the political process. There is a popular perception that the status quo is unsustainable and some form of agreement must be reached. This opinion finds support even within the loyalist camp.
In a recent interview with this writer, the MP Salih Ashur stated that he is among a minority group in parliament that is urging the government to make extensive concessions in the area of political reform. In his view, such a measure is necessary lest the tide of the Arab Spring engulfs Kuwait, and a settlement with the opposition is inevitable.
Although newspapers citing anonymous government sources have floated the ideas of dialogue and reconciliation, no such initiatives have been proposed officially. Furthermore, there are as yet no indications that the government is willing to concede anything significant. It remains to be seen whether Kuwait’s tradition of compromise will prevail and prevent the deepening of its political crisis.
Talal Al Rashoud is a PhD candidate in History at the School of Oriental and African Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tsalrashoud