Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis defied a ban on public gatherings Sunday, packing a square opposite parliament in a peaceful rally against new voting rules ahead of elections next month. As opposition to the proposed electoral reform grows alongside government panic, what is unclear is who exactly is behind these protests. By KHADIJA PATEL.
Long before cheering on the Arab Spring, Kuwait was celebrated as the closest thing to an Arab democracy. Women were given the right to vote, a law banning public gatherings was overturned and restrictions on new media outlets were curbed. Kuwait was certainly not ideally positioned. Deep tensions between the ruling Al-Sabah family and the parliament, as well as fractures within the political opposition lent a fragility to the great Kuwaiti story. That fragility has been exposed in recent months as a mass movement against proposed electoral form has pitted 100,000 Kuwaitis against tear gas and stun grenades.
Last month, the “March of Dignity” was the largest in the country’s history. With more than 100,000 people (in a city-state of just under three million) participating, the Interior Ministry justified the use of force to disperse protesters by saying they “rioted and used violence”, “threw stones at police forces” and “blocked traffic”. At the event, on 20 October, news reports said dozens of people were injured, including, according to the Interior Ministry, at least 11 policemen.
“The Dignity March, in common with many of the mass demonstrations that have rocked Kuwait over the past year, is a product of the re-mobilisation of large segments of Kuwaiti youth,” Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, explained.
Mona Kareem, a journalist from Kuwait, traced the current movement to 2009, when a group of young people launched a protest against the prime minister and government corruption. “Last year, with the Arab Spring it became strong,” she said.
But even as the Kuwaiti government scrambles to find someone to blame for all the trouble, the organisers of the protest movement appear anonymous. Even the owners of the Twitter account shepherding the protests are unknown.
It sounds like the plot line of a film: an anonymous Twitter account shepherding more than 100,000 people in a protest that sees a government launch into panic. But truth, as we’re frequently told, is stranger than fiction.
In an appeal imploring Kuwaitis to assist preserve anonymity, the Twitter account holder posted: “We the people of Kuwait ask you to protect the privacy of our account details of @karametwatan from all/any officials seeking the information of the owners and/or IP addresses of the persons using and posting from the mentioned account. We are responsible for the organisation of a march called ‘Dignity of a Nation’ in Kuwait, the largest ever march in the history of Kuwait calling for democracy, human rights, and fight against corruption. We do not feel safe and your protection of our privacy is pivotal.”
Ulrichsen said the protestors were “driven by a fierce desire to protect their constitutional and political freedoms against perceived governmental assault,” adding that they “also wish to preserve a degree of independence from opposition politicians, whom they suspect of manipulating the protests for their own narrow political interests. Hence, it is in the interests of the organisers to maintain their anonymity and autonomy within Kuwait's political landscape.”
Kareem agreed that the anonymity of the organisers helped to create a more inclusive atmosphere around the protests. “Last year people protested against the prime minister in protests that were organised by the opposition,” she said, “but the opposition is perceived to be Islamist and extremist, so young, left-wing and secular Kuwaitis did not want to get involved.
“A lot of people feel hopeless about the political tension,” Kareem said.
Ulrichsen believes the government’s attempt to reform the electoral law is significant for two reasons. “The first is that the political opposition argues that the elected parliament, rather than the appointed government, should be the ones to approve electoral amendments, while the second is that the proposed reform is seen by the opposition as an effort to dilute the 2006 amendments to the electoral law, which were a significant gain for the opposition in an earlier struggle for power against the government.”
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait’s emir, issued the decree to amend the electoral law on 19 October. The next day, the Interior Ministry warned it would “absolutely not allow” sit-ins, gatherings and marches regardless of how long they would last except within a designated area near the National Assembly building in Kuwait City. Protestors ignored the moratorium, even as the government continued to warn against them.
Last week, the emir insisted in a televised speech that he would go ahead with his electoral law decree and vowed not to tolerate “destabilisation of the country”.
Kareem believes all this points to what she terms, the “myth of Kuwaiti democracy”. She said the open political culture that had existed in the 1960s and 1970s in Kuwait has long since been eroded. “Kuwait was groundbreaking then, they were trying to do good things,” she said.
She said the 1980s marked the beginning of an erosion of the open political climate in Kuwait, with the 1990s delivering the people back to the government unquestioningly. “After the Gulf War, people lost faith in anybody but the government,” she said.
And since then, Kareem said, Kuwait’s human rights record is proof the sham of democracy in the oil-rich country. “Human rights abuses against the stateless community, which I and migrant workers are a part of, and then repression by the state against basic freedoms prove the reality of Kuwait,” she said.
The current protest movement is for her emblematic of a reawakening of the political spirit of the 1960s. “People were more political then,” she said.
For now, however, Kareem believes that despite differences Kuwaitis may still have about other areas of the country’s politics, there is a general consensus against participating in the election on 1 December. She believes the opposition to the vote has left the government with other option except “to buy votes”.
“The election has turned into a referendum both of the government and of the opposition,” Ulrichsen said. “If voters defy the opposition and proceed to vote, it would indicate that the opposition's hold over ordinary people is weaker than they care to believe; if there is a significant boycott, it would amount to a mass statement of no confidence in the legitimacy of the political system envisaged by the government's attempted reforms.”
The Kuwait government has taken to attacking the Muslim Brotherhood, the bogeyman du jour of Arabian Gulf states, for the upheaval. “Blaming the protests on the Muslim Brotherhood is a convenient excuse for the government, as it taps into popular alarm at the supposed rise of the Brotherhood both in the other Gulf States (Qatar excepted) and in the United States,” Ulrichsen said.
The real opposition to electoral reform, the 1 December vote and the current political spectacle come from the people of Kuwait themselves – a great mass of anonymous people organising themselves under no other political affiliation except the demand for something better than the current political spectacle. DM
- “Kuwait's protests remind us of the Arab spring's true spirit,” on The Guardian
Photo: Thousands of Kuwaitis attend a peaceful opposition-led rally against new voting rules, opposite the Kuwait Parliament building November 11, 2012. Recent demonstrations against the electoral changes, ordered by Kuwait's ruler last month ahead of a poll on December 1, have led to clashes between protesters and police as marches spread out of the areas usually designated for rallies. REUTERS/Jassim Mohammed