It is completely normal for there to be a complicated relationship between the ruling authority and opposition political forces within the legitimacy of parliament and political work in Kuwait. It is a semi-democracy; there are elections but party work is prohibited, there is a parliamentary majority but this majority has no right to form the government. On the other hand, the parliament, i.e. the national assembly, has legislative and regulatory authority over the government, and one third of government ministers are elected, and therefore the Kuwaiti system cannot be described as a fraudulent democracy, which is something that the region is known for.
Kuwait today is in crisis, but it is an ongoing crisis for there have been five elections in the past six years! The Emir dissolved parliament at the request of the opposition, prior to which Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah resigned in another attempt to satisfy opponents, and now there is a dispute over the distribution of constituencies.
A semi-democracy will inevitably have its problems, and eventually it must reach the stage of completing its other half. I think that many in Kuwait, including political figures in the state itself, are firm believers in the idea of democratic development in a state that has carried out elections for around 40 years. So why has political reform, or democratic development, not happened? I think that everyone is to blame. The political or constitutional leadership has not put forward a project to complete the semi-democracy, to contribute to the building of party groups, and to grant the winning forces their right to government participation. On the other hand, the opposition is not prepared to recognize that its existing structure is unfit for party politics, for it consists of sectarian or tribal groupings. In Kuwait, as in many other Arab countries, tribe is still stronger than creed, and creed is stronger than nationalism. Thus democratic competition transforms into a conflict between tribes and sects, thereby negating the value of democracy.
The sensitive, current circumstances that have caused the opposition to rise up and raise their slogans have worried the Kuwaiti political regime and the rest of the Gulf region. Is this the spirit of the Tunisian revolution that started the Arab Spring, or is it the spirit of Islamic groups, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, which triumphed in Tunisia and Egypt, and now believe that this is their time and their chance in Kuwait and elsewhere?
From diwans to demonstrations, this time the opposition raised the ceiling of its activities and came out onto the street in order to challenge the regime, not only the government. The regime had unilaterally decided to change the country’s electoral rules, which pushed matters towards a confrontation, and raised fears of clashes opening up a second heated front in the Gulf, after Bahrain. But Kuwait is not Bahrain, at least at this stage, although the Bahrain crisis is similar to that of Kuwait in terms of its sequencing, beginning as a movement of public opposition and then taking on a sectarian guise.
I think that the Kuwait reformist movement’s greatest enemy is timing. The suggestion that the current opposition mobilization is an extension of the Arab political wave of change frightens the traditional powers, who may not be opposed to political reform and development, but they fear its immeasurable nature, whether internally or abroad.
The second fear is that this mobilization may be part of an external political arrangement, specifically orchestrated from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose victories have inspired Gulf Islamists to mobilize and coerce the state into changing the status quo. According to this view, the slogans being raised about reform are merely a means to seize power, and have nothing to do with actual democratic development.
These concerns and uncertainties, as I have heard from those who prefer to sit on the fence at this stage, show that the problem lies in the timing. This means that we should not put Kuwait and Bahrain in the same basket, and we must urge the Kuwaiti opposition to distinguish their calls for reform from foreign calls for change, and likewise emphasize that they are not part of the political storm being driven by foreign movements, whether from the Muslim Brotherhood or otherwise. Does a dispute over constituencies merit such a battle? Where would this lead Kuwait and the Gulf as a whole?