Center for Strategic Communication

Last night’s violent clashes in Kuwait have brought its
long-brewing political crisis to a dangerous point. It did not have to be this
way, in a Gulf state that has long stood out for its robust public sphere,
electoral traditions and vibrant parliament. But a series of unusually
provocative steps by both the royal family and the opposition, in the context
of a long-running battle over the powers of parliament and accountability for
the royal family, have taken their toll and tempers are running hot. After months
of growing popular mobilization and a complex crisis of political institutions,
Kuwait’s political future suddenly seems deeply uncertain. 

Before it gets too late to de-escalate, the
Kuwaiti leadership needs to offer meaningful political concessions, including
standing down on its deeply controversial plans for a December election,
relaxing its attempt to shut down public dissent, and allowing a greater
parliamentary role in the selection of cabinet ministers. It seems to have
instead decided that now is the time to crack down hard before things get out
of hand. Its repressive turn and the galvanizing effect on a mostly moderate
opposition offers a troubling echo of Bahrain’s brutal path … one which the
Kuwaitis seemed uniquely well-placed to avoid, but now looms large. Kuwait’s
long-developing political crisis is discussed in depth in the essays collected
in today’s new POMEPS Briefing, "Kuwait’s
Moment of Truth
." [[BREAK]]

Kuwait’s problems have been evident for quite
a while, as popular mobilization interacted with repeated efforts to assert
parliamentary authority over successive governments appointed by the emir.
Those political battles were moving ever closer to the royal family itself,
particularly allegations of corruption (which last November drove the prime
minister from office) and demands for parliament’s right to interrogate royal
government ministers. The long political stalemate at the top coincided with
the growing assertiveness of a wired youth movement, the troubling rise
of a
new kind of sectarianism
, and the success
of Islamists and tribal figures
in the February 2012 elections. Indeed, I included an assault by regime security forces
on dissident Kuwaiti academic Obaid al-Wasmi in my January 5, 2011
essay on the crumbling
foundations of the Arab order 
– before the fall of Ben
Ali, before the Egyptian uprising, and before most observers sensed the
impending regional Arab uprising. 

Unlike many Gulf states, Kuwait’s current
crisis comes within the context of a long-history of public, contentious
politics. To its great credit, Kuwait has a long history of parliamentary
politics, and its vibrant and creative youth movement has been active for over
half a decade. Its experience with contentious and parliamentary politics,
along with massive oil wealth and solid U.S. political support, should have
left Kuwait better equipped to handle rising political turbulence. But the
popular and parliamentary challenges to royal authority seem to have knocked
the emirate off-balance. The arrest of opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak for
his public warning to the Emir ("We will not allow you, your highness, to
take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy.") and its ban on public demonstrations
does not suggest a confident regime.

The popular mobilization in Kuwait should
quickly dispel any notions of the
Gulf being immune 
to the underlying drivers
of the Arab uprising. The youth
movement in Kuwait
is every bit as wired,
impatient and engaged as in other Arab countries — and has been active since at
least 2006
. Online activists and politicians besides
Barrak have increasingly openly mocked and challenged the al-Sabah family, though going after the Emir himself marks an escalation. Last November, in an unprecedented challenge to the
authority of the royal family, parliamentary opposition and popular
mobilization — which included the shocking
occupation of the parliament building 
protesters — forced the resignation of Prime Minister Nasser Mohammed
al-Sabah over allegations of corruption. The massive
protest on October 21 
was possibly the largest
in the history of Kuwait. Opposition leaders are huddling
to decide on a strategy 
after last night’s
clashes, but do not seem inclined to back down as a wave of popular anger
pushes them forward. They plan a major protest on Sunday, November 4, in
defiance of the regime’s ban on public assembly.

After years of jockeying with its opponents,
the regime has pushed back hard, in ways that look likely to backfire. In June,
the emir
suspended the troublesome parliament 
for the
first time in Kuwaiti history; it was subsequently dissolved after the Constitutional
Court ruled the February 2012 election void. The emir then unilaterally
announced changes to the election law that outraged the opposition, which has
declared its intention to boycott the elections called for December 1. The
government banned public gatherings of more than 20 people, and warns
of even harsher penalties
 after the violent
clashes last night. It is also reportedly
planning to prosecute international NGOs
reporting on its human rights violations and political crackdown. Barrak, the
opposition figure whose arrest galvanized the recent protest, will
reportedly be charged 
with undermining the status of the emir (he was released on bail pending his detention).

While the drivers of the tension in Kuwait
have much in common with the other Arab uprisings, particularly the impatient
and mobilized youth, it is important to keep local conditions well in mind.
Many Kuwaitis support the regime against the opposition, and there is a long
history of public politics to fall back upon. Crucially, this is not currently
a mobilization for the overthrow of the regime. Most protesters want to see a
constitutional monarchy and political reforms, not revolution. But the lessons
of other cases — notably Bahrain — suggest that the Kuwaiti regime’s current
course of action poses a real risk of radicalizing its opposition and setting
in motion unpredictable popular forces. (Unconfirmed rumors such as those reported by Mohammed al-Jassim that Saudi and UAE leaders pushing their Kuwaiti counterparts to crack down only exacerbate such fears.)

Kuwaitis are proud of their parliament, angry
about corruption, and determined to see greater transparency and
accountability. Their demands thus far focus on such relatively moderate
reforms. But it is unclear whether the regime can make such concessions.
Parliamentary selection or approval of the prime minister and
cabinet, rather than appointment by the emir, would fundamentally
the enduring logic of family rule in Kuwait. As Nathan
Brown noted last December
, "the old
[political order] is fraying, but it is not quite clear what is replacing
it." POMEPS Briefing 15, "Kuwait’s
Moment of Truth
," explains how we
got here and what to expect next.