The Arab world was taken by surprise when 150,000 or so Kuwaitis took the small country’s streets in protest on 21 October. The protest was mobilised against a new electoral law designed to reduce opposition, which was passed by the emir without parliamentary approval (as parliament was dissolved).
The Kuwaiti political experience is regionally exceptional as no bloodshed or violence was used in its formation; rather its first emir was more or less chosen by popular consent. Kuwaitis take much pride in this. Since its independence Kuwait has had free elections, though interrupted by various crises, and the general expectation remained that free and fair elections and political participation cannot be substituted with any alternative.
At least, this is the perceived narrative. If one looks at the history of Kuwait and its root political problems, one realises why many Kuwaitis are calling for fundamental and structural changes in the political system, which has manifested in calls for amending the constitution and governing laws.
Kuwait has always experienced political problems, almost in a cyclical manner. Even the first parliament (1963) after independence had its drawbacks. The first parliament accused the government of corruption and various ministers of mixing personal business activities with governmental ones. In 1964, even after amending the government, 26 of 50 parliamentarians boycotted the parliament.
Since 2006 the parliament has been dissolved five times. It has become so frequent that some observers are no longer surprised. The political turmoil in Kuwait certainly has its roots in times before the Arab spring hit Tunis. I like to say that the political cycles of rising and diminishing freedoms have been speed up by features of globalisation.
Corruption is perhaps the main motive behind increased political opposition. In the past there were no alternative media outlets to challenge the pervasive regime story of political problems and there were no international organisations to condemn any freedom-limiting acts. Thus from 1976, when the parliament was first dissolved, it was not until 1981 that the next parliament was formed. In 1986 again it was dissolved and was only reformed following the liberation after the Iraqi invasion.
At the beginning of the millennium, blogging becoming popular in Kuwait and many blogs started becoming much more politically oriented, offering a completely alternative political narrative with the luxury of being anonymous. Online political clashes become almost a daily occurrence, especially between liberals and Islamists, where both tended to blame each other for the shortcomings of Kuwait’s political and governing life.
Some segments of social media started turning towards governmental corruption as the root cause and even challenged the prime minister who is a member of the royal family, demanding he step down.
While the Arab spring certainly did not initiate Kuwaiti political strife, it certainly catalysed it. In November 2011, 50,000 or so protested in Sahat al-Irada (the Square of Determination), demanding the prime minister step down over allegations of corruption.
Around the same time, the parliament was stormed at night by protesters with oppositional members of parliament making the same demand. Indeed the minister had no choice but to step down, marking the first such incident of its kind in Kuwait.
Before the Arab spring Kuwait had a comparative advantage in terms of political freedoms and its political system, outmatching by far the regimes Ben Ali and Mubarak, and many in the Arab world associated Kuwait with a positive political experience.
After the Arab spring this is no longer the case and Kuwait politicians who took pride in its freedoms have become overshadowed by much more illuminating experiences in the region. This has made Kuwaitis much more daring. In the past asking a prime minister to step down was taboo, especially when the prime minister is appointed by the emir which is deeply respected in Kuwaiti society and inviolable in the Kuwaiti constitution.
Musallam Al Barak, a parliamentarian and hardcore activist, previously said the regime will regret not fulfilling previous demands. Musallam later on was the one who coined the slogan “we will not allow you” that shook the streets of Kuwait in protest.
Now there are rising demands for a constitutional monarchy where the government is not appointed by the emir but rather established through a popular vote to elect the prime minister. The regime and opposition are not compromising so far and thus marches in the streets of Kuwait are likely to continue.
It is highly unlikely that brute force like that in Tunis and Egypt will be used, though the regional implications make reform a much more daunting task, as even if the regime responds positively to calls for reform it will be met with regional opposition.