When a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation 12 years ago today, Masoumah Mubarak heard the promises from the ruling Sabah family. There would be political reforms. Parliament would be revived. Women would vote. "Soon," the wealthy emirate's leaders said from their comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia.

Mubarak, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, believed -- all the way through May 16, 1999, when the emir followed through on his pledge of eight years earlier and publicly endorsed women's voting rights. Then she saw what happened in Kuwait's National Assembly: The emir's words were put to the test, and the ruling family failed to put its political clout behind them. Women's rights lost by two votes in parliament and the emir never pushed the idea again.

Mubarak no longer believes. Despite the prospect of another U.S.-led war against Iraq, one that President Bush says will foster democratization throughout the Middle East, many Kuwaitis look skeptically to the example of their own country. "Nobody believes the war will bring democracy to the Arab world. Look at Kuwait. I don't buy it," Mubarak said.

Although this country is smaller, richer and far less complex than neighboring Iraq, "the new Kuwait" promised by the emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, on his return 12 years ago has turned out to be a lot like the old Kuwait. Instead of moving toward more participatory government, as the United States urged, Kuwait's post-liberation history is one of limited change. The country remains a tightly controlled hereditary emirate with a 75-year-old ruler whose family wields unquestioned power. Women cannot vote or go to college with men. Political parties are not allowed.

While hopes may have been boosted by earnest rhetoric out of Washington in 1991, the United States never publicly urged this key Persian Gulf ally to adopt reforms. The emir never made specific promises beyond his pledge to restore the National Assembly and consider the vote for women. The question of sharing the ruling family's power or changing the hereditary system apparently was not seriously considered.

The parliament, which the ruler had suspended in 1986, was revived in 1991. Elections were held in 1992, 1996 and 1999 for the 14.8 percent of Kuwait's 860,000 citizens who are eligible to vote. But the balloting has produced a parliament in which the strongest political forces are conservative tribal leaders allied with Islamic fundamentalists, some of whom proclaim sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers and Osama bin Laden.

"We hope this war would bring democracy to Iraq, but we all know democratization doesn't come by a statement from a foreign government," Mubarak said. "Even if the United States spent millions of dollars on democracy, it wouldn't be so unless people are really believing in democracy, and so far in the Middle East, belief in democracy is not well rooted. None of the governments in the Middle East truly believes in democracy."

By many measures, Kuwait has a more thriving civil society than found elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region. It has a lively, critical press and a tradition of public debate in diwaniyas, private gatherings of Kuwaiti men at which the issues of the day are hashed over between gossip and kebabs. Parliament wields significant influence over the ruling family's government.

Kuwait, which was granted independence from Britain in 1961, has a 1962 constitution that on paper offers significant guarantees of civil rights. But it is a place with not a single legally recognized human rights organization. It is a country that has failed to carry out significant economic liberalization and where the ruling family maintains exclusive power over the legal system. It is a two-tiered society in which citizens enjoy privileges denied to the other 1.4 million residents, most of them foreign workers from poorer parts of the Arab world and South Asia. Non-Muslims are denied citizenship even if they are born here; among Kuwaiti citizens, only men 21 and older have the right to vote.

Twelve years ago, the State Department report on human rights criticized the limited voting rights and cited "restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, the right of citizens to change their government, women and workers' rights, and instances of arbitrary arrest, mistreatment of prisoners and lack of due process." The most recent report, issued last March, contains much the same list: human rights abuses by some members of the security forces, judges appointed only by the emir, "a pattern of bias against foreign residents," discrimination against non-citizens, censorship of "morally offensive" materials, restricted freedom of assembly and a tradition of discrimination by the Sunni Muslim establishment against a Shiite Muslim minority that makes up 30 percent of the population.

Many independent analysts and members of Kuwait's embittered but vocal group of Western-oriented reformers point to the ruling family's tacit alliance with Islamic fundamentalists as a reason for limited progress toward more participatory government. "You expected, after the liberation, the government will jump after the Americans," said Shamlan Essa, a political scientist at Kuwait University. "Instead, they are trying to please the Islamic fundamentalists."

Essa ticked off a long list of the ruling family's bows toward Islamic sentiment in the years since liberation. They include an emir-appointed committee on "Islamicization of the law," refusal to register non-government groups except Islamic charities and new education policies adding religious instruction. In parliament, Islamic fundamentalists have teamed up with conservative tribal leaders to become the most powerful voting bloc. Only two members of parliament come from the National Democratic Forum, an umbrella group of reformers.

Islamic political leaders say that is proof that representative institutions, no matter how limited, work in Kuwait. "Yes, we have more power now than before the liberation," said Mubarak Dawailah, leader of the Islamic fundamentalists' parliamentary group. "That's because we are the most powerful group in society."

"Whenever there is true democracy, the Islamists will prevail," said Abdul Razak Shuyji, a leader of the conservative Salafi movement.

To their critics, however, the fundamentalists' influence has blocked progress toward the reforms advocated by the United States after the 1991 war.

"We've lost the 12 years since the liberation because of the resistance of the political Islamic movement," said Saud Nasir Sabah, oil minister and a former ambassador to the United States. "They do not welcome any further U.S. or Western investment in the country."

For Sabah, the proof is the parliament's long resistance to opening the country's rich northern oil fields to multinational companies with the technology to develop them. "It's dead now," he said. "It's back to square one."

Amer Tameemi, chairman of the Kuwait Economic Society, noted that the government, flush with oil revenue, still employs 93 percent of all Kuwaitis who work. Islamic leaders in parliament, he said, have enhanced their political appeal by vowing to keep those government jobs.

Still, he said he believes that change in Iraq will spur change elsewhere in the Middle East. "Once you have democracy in Iraq, many of the political regimes in the area will be forced to reform as well," he said.

A large, if often silent, minority in Kuwait agrees, hoping that a war in Iraq would result in reforms here. That group includes people like Nora Dandashi, a Syrian-born journalist working here who says she will not return to her country until "you Americans clean up the region and make democracy everywhere."

Fadil Sayafi, a 31-year-old with a degree from the University of Miami and an American wife, is also among its number. In his widely shared view, the forces of modernization and Islamic tradition are bound to clash. Only a war in Iraq and a major change in the regional balance of power toward democracy might improve it, Sayafi said.

"War in Iraq could bring more democracy to this country, relieve the pressure," he said. "It could give our government relief so they can change their internal policies."

But many Kuwaitis who favor democracy say that the experience of the last 12 years has been a frustrating exercise in unfulfilled promises. "There is not a democratic system in Kuwait, there is not democracy here," said Mohammed Qadiri, a former diplomat. "We are marginally better than our neighbors, but this is not democracy."

Qadiri quit the Foreign Ministry over the dissolution of parliament in 1986. He stayed in Kuwait during the seven-month Iraqi occupation in 1990-91 and joined the resistance, until he was arrested by Iraqi soldiers three days before U.S. and allied Arab forces arrived. Like many Kuwaitis, he was bitter at the swift flight of the emir and other members of the ruling family when Iraq overran Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, and hoped that liberation would bring a new, more progressive generation to power.

But that hasn't happened, Qadiri said. The emir, who is ailing, has been on the throne for more than 25 years. Crown Prince Saad Abdullah Sabah is about the same age -- and is also ill. The chief power broker, Sabah Ahmed Sabah, is one of the longest-serving foreign ministers in the world, having held the job with one interruption since 1978.

Qadiri spoke at the regular Sunday night diwaniya he hosts with his wife. They started it as soon as he returned from an Iraqi prison in April 1991. It is one of a handful of mixed-sex diwaniyas in the country, and he has found that most Kuwaitis will not accept it.

"Kuwaitis don't want to bring their wife to a diwaniya," he said. "They are not ready for it."

Abdullah Tefoni, a Kuwaiti official, talks to a group protesting the lack of voting rights for women in the emirate.