In Kuwait, a long battle to oust the prime minister

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011

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. They merely want 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, across all strata of society, 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 do not stand for election, but people can have their say in multiple ways - which 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, 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.

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