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Kuwait: The dangers of street politics | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Ever since its independence in 1960 Kuwait has been something of a curiosity as a political model.

A mixture of a traditional power-structure centered on the ruling family and its allies in tribal and merchant clans on the one hand and electoral politics on the other; that model is hard to categorize in the context of Arab politics. Nevertheless, for decades, it proved flexible enough to weather numerous storms, including invasion and occupation by Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Middle East experts might argue that vast oil revenues played the key role in that configuration. That, however, does not tell the whole story. Kuwait had developed a system of consensual politics from the 19th century onwards, long before the oil bonanza. Timid, but ultimately important steps, towards broadening the base of decision-making were taken even before independence. The emergence of political, social and cultural clubs, the expansion of relatively free media and creative tension between parliament and government helped define a Kuwaiti brand of politics.

Thus, Kuwait has been different from most other Arab countries in a number of ways. It has never had an opposition in exile because dissidents are able to express their views at home, often in the media and/or the parliament.

Nor has Kuwait earned notoriety for filling prisons with dissidents. Years ago, news that a university teacher had been imprisoned for “insulting religion” electrified Kuwait. I happened to be there and asked to visit the prisoner. A friend suggested that we drive to the “prison” which turned out to be a house where our prisoner was comfortably installed with full amenities and, when we arrived, was already receiving his numerous friends. Endless cups of Arabic coffee were served as we discussed the situation. A few days later, he was released.

No Kuwaiti high official could assume the peacock-like arrogance of his counterparts in many other Arab countries. On average, with one or two exceptions, most Kuwaiti ministers are chased out of office after 14 months.

Kuwaitis don’t have the faintest idea of what tyranny, in force in so many Middle Eastern countries, really means.

So, why would anyone want to inject a dose of insurrectionary politics into the Kuwaiti system – and that on the eve of the general election on 1 December?

People opt for insurrectionary politics for two reasons.

First, they fear that their voice cannot be heard within institutional politics. The media is closed to them and they cannot voice their grievances in the parliament. Well, as already noted that does not apply to Kuwait.

The second reason is that they know they could not win power through elections in the context of institutional politics.

Right now, the group most active in trying to inject a dose of insurrectionary politics is Hadas, the Kuwaiti branch of Muslim Brotherhood.

The group knows that Kuwait’s demographic mix would not allow it to score the kind of electoral victory needed for radical change. There is no configuration under which Hadas, though likely to win a large number of seats, could secure a straight majority in parliament.

That analysis is confirmed by recent elections in Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt where the Brotherhood’s core support was seldom more than than a quarter of the electorate.

Wisdom dictates that Hadas, and with it the Brotherhood throughout the region, temper their appetite for power. The Brotherhood should not try to bite off more than it can chew. Nor should it jettison the grudging respect that it has earned, deservedly or not, because of the relative moderation it has shown in the “Arab Spring” countries.

A decade ago, the Sudanese politician Hassan al-Turabi spoke of his dream that, one day, Islamists would capture Kuwait and use its oil wealth to advance their agenda. Though almost surrealistic today, that dream may still be alive in some heads in and beyond Kuwait.

Other factors, including personal ambitions, may also be involved.

It is not difficult to play heroics in Kuwait because you could always be sure that whatever you do as a political activist nothing really bad is going to happen to you or your family.

In politics doing something unnecessary could be worse than making a terrible mistake. In Kuwait there is no need for street politics, opposing insurrection to institutional reform. Street politics could harm the model that Kuwaitis have built. It could undermine the citizens’ confidence in pursuing reform through consensual politics. That, in turn, could produce two opposite trends: one in favor of dictatorship, the other in support of semi-organized anarchy witnessed in many Third World countries.

Prudence dictates that Kuwaiti politics be guided towards reform.

The parliament has often been a kind of political souk in which members have blackmailed ministers, and at times even the whole Cabinet, while the government has tried to advance its agenda by bribing the parliamentarians.

The predominance of individual, clannish and sectarian interests has slowed down the emergence of a sense of common interest. That, in turn, has hampered the process of decision-making, preventing Kuwait from making full use of its potentials.

The electoral system in place is far from flawless and the absence of political parties encourages sectarianism.

Also, a great deal of corruption is built into the system. A few years ago, I was amazed to hear parliamentarians passionately demanding the cancellation of all debts up to a certain level, a move that could have bankrupted the Kuwaiti banks.

Thus, cleaning the stables remains a major task.

Kuwait’s national security, even survival, depends, at least in part, on maintaining a consensual system in which basic freedoms are guaranteed. Despite dramatic changes in the political atmosphere of the region, Kuwait must remain vigilant against rapacious powers close and far.

At a moment of danger, a Kuwait suffocating in an obscurantist system would not be able to call on the outside world to come to its defense as it did in 1990.

Boycotting the electoral process where reasonably clean elections are possible, could only mean a vote for despotism in the name of ideology.