KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT—This small Gulf nation was largely unknown in America before Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded more than 20 years ago. The United States intervened to drive Iraqi forces out. Kuwaitis remain grateful to Americans and emphasize their friendship with the United States.
Although a monarchy, Kuwait has an elected parliament and a generally free media. It regularly invites foreign analysts and journalists to observe its elections. I am making my second trip this year.
Tremors from the Arab Spring are being felt here. The parliament elected in 2009 faced charges of corruption and lost popularity, and was dissolved at the beginning of the year. Elections were held in February.
All very democratic.
The new legislature was dominated by anti-government activists and, more important, Islamists. Top of the latter’s agenda was making Sharia the basis of all laws, imposing the death penalty for blasphemy, and closing Christian churches. Not very good for liberty.
The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said no to all three. Liberty was protected only because Kuwait was not a genuine parliamentary system where elections determine the government.
The constitutional court then reinstated the previous parliament on technical grounds—that it had not been properly dissolved. The members were no more popular than before and the body soon was properly dissolved. But the emir unilaterally changed the voting system from four votes to one vote per district—from which ten MPs are chosen. Public protests and a large-scale boycott ensued.
Nonetheless, the election was held on December 1. Turnout fell—to about 40 percent, compared to 60 percent in February—but the conduct of the poll received general praise from outside observers. The vote elevated a number of unknowns to parliament.
The government claimed success, but the opposition, which ranges from liberals to Islamists, organized 15 demonstrations involving thousands on Monday night. The police responded with force and injuries resulted. The opposition promised more protests, including a large rally promised for Saturday. The emir met with members of the royal family. My friend, political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra, told me that Kuwait was at a “political crossroads,” with the public determined to “deepen democratization.”
No one knows there this will end. The main opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak, until this election the longest-serving MP, emphasized the protestors’ commitment to the emir. He told me the situation in Kuwait was different than elsewhere in the Arab Spring: “We want to have an elected government. That does not mean we are against the ruling system.” However, the driving force behind the protests is the youth movement—an incredible 70 percent of the population is under 29. Some of them, at least, seem less than enamored with monarchical rule, with or without a parliament.
As the current political crisis—a word now used by some—plays out, Kuwaitis may find themselves with something closer to a popularly elected government. Unfortunately, however, experience shows that this may not make them freer.