North Africa, West Asia

Political reform in Kuwait?

Some believe it will be another five years before Kuwait can approach the idea of political reform again. But until then, activists should not be discouraged. Calling for an elected government in a region governed in the purest tribal form is not going to bear fruit overnight. 

Mohammad F Almutawa
10 December 2013

Demotix/Dominic Dudley. All rights reserved.

The Criminal Court in Kuwait acquits 70 activists, including 11 former Members of Parliament, from charges of storming parliament; the decision is one of the most anticipated in Kuwait’s turbulent political climate.

The seeds for Kuwait’s current political stalemate were planted years ago. Continuous gridlock and a series of corruption scandals have resulted in seven parliamentary elections and thirteen cabinet reshuffles in the past seven years. A large corruption scandal linking the former Prime Minister to large unexplained bank deposits into thirteen MP's accounts, i.e. 26% of the elected parliament, caused public outrage in 2011 resulting with the PM’s removal. The elections that followed resulted in the creation of the Majority Bloc, a group of 34 opposition MPs, representing about 68% of the elected parliament, united under a loose banner of anti-corruption. However, the parliament was dissolved by the judiciary four months later; sparking a renewal of public protests culminating in the Amir’s intervention with a decree revising the election law so as to drastically decrease the probability of a parliamentary opposition coalition being forged. 

The protests of the past two years have coincided with protests in other Arab countries, leading many to believe Kuwait was having its own Arab Spring moment. That’s no longer the case, as streets are now calmer and people seem to have moved away from immediate demands of political reform. Though many scares do still remain, public outrage over the past two years resulted in an avalanche of court cases against activists. Most prominent were charges of offending the Emir, participating in rallies/unlicensed crowding and crowding for the purpose of committing a crime.  

Offending the Emir

On 2 December 2013, the constitutional court in Kuwait upheld the law penalizing criticism of the Emir. The government has been using article 25 of the National Security Law to send dozens of former MPs, activists and tweeters to court, charging them with offending the Emir. Several defendants’ lawyers challenged the article on the grounds that it conflicts with article 36 of the constitution guaranteeing free speech. The court, however, upheld the law saying it provides necessary protection for the head of state, adding that the Emir should be treated with extreme respect. The constitutional court is the highest court in the country and its decisions are final.   

Human rights lawyers were hoping their challenge would overrule the law. The Kuwaiti government has charged dozens of activists with offending the Emir. According to the National Committee to Monitor Violations (NCV), a grassroots group set up by activists, the first two weeks of December alone are set to witness court hearings for more than 30 activists facing the charge. If found guilty, those charged with offending the Emir could face up to five years in jail.

The court’s ruling is a direct violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kuwait ratified in 1996. The article explicitly states that public figures of the highest authority are legitimately subject to criticism. International watchdog Human Rights Watch called on the Kuwaiti government to scrap “offending the Emir” as a criminal charge earlier this year.

Storming of parliament

The Court has acquitted 70 individuals, including 11 former MPs, facing charges for storming parliament on 15 November 2011. The court based its acquittal on conflicting testimonies by parliament security over whether the protestors stormed the premises or were allowed in.

The sterile opposition is looking to the court’s decision to reinvigorate its base. Now that the defendants were found not guilty, the opposition is going to celebrate its “triumph”. The government would very likely welcome the acquittal as well, as it seeks to avoid any further political escalation or give the opposition room to regain its public support.

The struggle of the past two years has since died out. The opposition itself was born out of abnormal circumstance uniting Islamists, liberals, youth and tribesman under a banner of anti-corruption; it struggled to materialize into anything substantial or long lasting. The period during which the opposition formed the Majority Bloc in parliament is now documented as a period where they tried to pass Sharia Law and sentence blasphemers to death.

The Kuwaiti government is blessed with a mellow populace. In an annual survey of voters' priorities conducted by the legislator, ‘combating corruption’ has dropped three ranks since last year; ‘housing’ is now everyone’s top priority. Talk about political reform no longer dominates in the same manner it did last year. It could be argued that regional developments and the difficulty in establishing political reform in Arab Spring countries have caused Kuwaitis to steer away from political reform.

Some believe it will be another five years before Kuwait can approach the idea of political reform again. But until then, activists should not be discouraged. Calling for an elected government in a region governed in the purest tribal form is not going to bear fruit overnight. Kuwait’s struggle in the 1950’s for political reform resulted in the most advanced legislator in the region, their struggle in 2005 brought substantial reforms to the election law, including redistricting to reduce the number of electoral districts from 25 to just five, and without a doubt their existing struggle will produce fruit in the near future. 

The struggle of the past two years revealed many things to the public. First, it revealed a very public power struggle among members of the royal family. It is argued that the scandal surrounding the former PM and his connection to financial deposits in MPs accounts which triggered the mass protests were actually exposed by a competing member of the royal family. Second, the struggle revealed the shortcomings and loopholes in Kuwaiti law that have led to political clamp down and trials, such as the ones we are witnessing now. In order to push ahead with political reform, these laws must be understood, revised and changed using any method possible. Third, the struggle has shattered stereotypes of society and stripped away the facade of “democracy” that the ruling elite have hid behind for decades. It revealed that those once believed to be liberals were elitist, and that moderates were extremists, and has shown the true colours of a regressive government that has significant international backing.

Kuwait is far from achieving a wholesome democratic system, but it needs to start somewhere. Several issues can precede the elected government which everyone hopes to achieve, including the establishment of political parties as well as the financial independence of the judiciary, to name but a few. Those activists who were acquitted should get a good night’s sleep because tomorrow is the beginning of a new struggle.

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” - Nelson Mandela 1918-2013  

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