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In Kuwait, a long battle to oust the prime minister

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 6:31 PM

KUWAIT CITY - Protesters haven't packed Kuwait's streets, but the country - long the most democratic in the Persian Gulf - is in the throes of the same battle to reform its leadership as other Arab states.

No one in Kuwait is calling to oust the emir or bring down the rule of the Sabah family - showing the same deference seen until now in other gulf monarchies, where the distribution of oil revenue has helped blunt social unrest.

But there has been a running, five-year-long struggle to oust the prime minister, the emir's nephew, who opponents say has mismanaged Kuwait's economy and helped erode such core values as freedom of speech.

Police violence at a December opposition meeting fueled public anger, and critics say they plan to intensify their campaign against Sheik Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah this week by staging the sort of demonstrations that have swept across other states in the region.

Noting Kuwait's almost 50-year-old constitution and reputation for rambunctious parliamentary politics, protest organizers say they are not trying to overhaul the system but merely get a prime minister who will respect the rules.

"From A to Z, what we see is bad: political corruption, briberies, corrupt media, special forces attacking the people and parliament members," said one of the organizers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

The emir has stood by his nephew in the past, but opposition groups hope recent developments in the region may make him more open to change.

Many here embrace Kuwait's hybrid system. The emir - chosen by the Sabah family, though technically with the assent of the elected parliament - has extensive power. But a culture of consultation also runs deep. Many in the community, from politicians to ordinary shopkeepers, hold open salons each evening for people to gather and digest the day's controversies. Elected cooperative boards run most local supermarkets, and influential university societies groom future politicians.

'A complete disconnect'

Members of the ruling family, particularly the emir, do not stand for election, but people can have their say in multiple ways - something Kuwaitis say makes their country different from the region's less open societies.

"It's like a little Athens," said Kristin Smith Diwan, a professor at American University who studies the politics of the gulf region. "The men have a lot of free time, and they spend their time discussing politics."

Much of that talk has focused on the prime minister, whose five-year tenure has been characterized by a deep paralysis - successive cabinet resignations, legislative gridlock and two no-confidence votes in parliament. He survived the most recent, in January, in a 25 to 22 vote.

His government has curtailed public gatherings, violently breaking up a political salon held by opposition leaders in December. It has also restricted the media, closing the local office of the al-Jazeera satellite network after coverage of the incident. Charges of vote-buying are routine.

"There's a complete disconnect between the politicians and the twittering masses," said Alanoud Al Sharekh, a Kuwaiti academic based at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. Kuwait's democracy is "a very transparent and open system. And it's a transparent and open system of corruption."

The number of voters is limited. Women received suffrage in 2005, but only about 375,000 of the country's 1.1 million citizens can go to the ballot box because army and police personnel aren't allowed to vote. Naturalized citizens face restrictions, too. An additional 2.4 million foreigners - mostly guest workers - live in the country but cannot vote.

There are also growing calls for the government to address the population of stateless "bidun," who have not had citizenship for generations and are denied basic government services such as identification, education and health care. Estimates put their numbers at 105,000 to 120,000, and some held several days of protests last month in contravention of a government order. Last year, the government forbade public gatherings, a sign that it is fearful of the power of discontent.

Few sectarian problems

But Kuwait has largely escaped the sectarian divisions that have plagued countries such as Iraq and Bahrain, analysts say. Shia Muslims, about a quarter of the population, have roughly proportional representation in the 50-member parliament. And years of the threat of Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq, local analysts say, helped unify Sunnis and Shiites against a common enemy.

Although some government leaders say they worry about Iran's influence on segments of the Shia population, most of their fears are directed outward - at the role Iran might assume in Bahrain should Shiites take power, for example - rather than inward, at their own population.

"We are a small country among big fish, and everything that happens to our neighbors affects us," said Abd Al-Rahman Alyan, the editor of the Kuwait Times. As for Shiites in Kuwait, he said that "they're integrated. They are looked at as Kuwaiti citizens, not Shiite Kuwaiti citizens. We always worry about outside interference, from Iran, or even Iraq."

Kuwait's parliament also includes Salafi Muslims, who practice a conservative strain of Islam, and people affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, who coexist with their more secular counterparts. The parliament has power - going by other Arab countries, at least - and proposes legislation and interrogates and deposes cabinet ministers, who are named by the royal family.

Democracy with limits

But there are limits. The emir can dissolve parliament at will - something that has happened three times in the past five years - and previous emirs ruled for years by decree after dismissing the elected body. Political parties are illegal, which fragments the parliament and makes it hard to unify groups around particular issues.

Members of parliament are also cautious about offending the emir by challenging him even when they are within their legal rights to do so - another reason why the upcoming protests, organized for Tuesday by a youth group called Fifth Fence, are asking only for the government to live up to the constitution, members of the group say.

"What we want is to implement the constitution from cover to cover," said one of the protest organizers, who also requested anonymity. "Democracies are different in different countries. In Kuwait, we are happy with this democracy."

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