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The Democracy of Kuwait - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In an article that was both bitter and sweet at the same time, Kuwaiti writer Mohammed Musaed al Saleh wrote in Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas about the upcoming grilling that Kuwaiti Prime Minister will be subjected to by Islamic and populist MPs.

Questions were fired from the independent Islamist MP Faisal al Muslim towards the Prime Minister regarding the use of public funds by the Prime Minister’s office.

The Islamic Constitutional Movement, which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, filed to quiz the Prime Minister and criticized the government’s economic performance, development plan and suspension of parliament. Moreover, the Popular Action Bloc, famous for its sharp-tongued MPs who slam the government for matters regarding public services and finance, is threatening to file its third interpellation and this pushed Speaker of the Kuwaiti National Assembly Jassem al Kharafi to comment on this parliamentary revolution, the anticipated clash with the government and the future of the entire parliament by saying, “May God protect us,” as cited by Al Watan newspaper.

It is a constitutional right to file for an interpellation against a minister or a prime minister and no one is exempt except for the Emir according to the constitution. Members of parliament have been making the most of this right for a long time; however there are people who argue that because it has been used time and time again, it has become something of a scare tactic stripped of its exceptional significance. Some Kuwaitis argue that MPs can oppose and observe government action effectively without such uproar.

MP Parliament member Salah al Mulla, a phenomenal figure who reached parliament independently and based on clearly liberal slogans, told me that the most celebrated opposition parliamentarian in the history of Kuwait was Ahmed al Khateeb. However, al Khateeb never resorted to interpellation simply because the maturity and the power of his speech did not require taking such action against a minister, let alone against the prime minister.

To people outside of Kuwait, the entire scene looks absurd. It appears as if MPs are stirring trouble and preventing the government from carrying out its work. However, supporters of the democratic process see matters in a different way. They believe that what observers abroad see as a fuss is simply the media’s doing. According to them, the people of Kuwait are used to such an atmosphere of rivalry between the government and parliament. Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed al Salem al Sabah commented on such skirmishes between the government and the parliament saying, “This is nothing new in Kuwait.”

It seems that this time, the communication crisis between government and parliament has reached another level. Suffice it to say that under Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al Sabah, parliament was dissolved twice. Parliament was dissolved in May 2006 after the interpellation of the Prime Minister over what MPs described as a blunder by the government regarding the issue of electoral constituencies. Dissolution took place once again in March 2008 following the Imad Mughniyah commemoration crisis. Parliament was dissolved again last November as a result of the escalating criticism from Salafist MPs against hosting the Iranian cleric Sayyed al Fali, which was called at the time a crisis of security restrictions. It is also worth mentioning that parliament has been dissolved constitutionally only once since the introduction of the constitution in 1963 and that occurred in 1999, whereas it was unconstitutionally dissolved twice: in 1976, which lasted for four years, and in 1986, which also lasted four years as well.

These heated and fast-pace changes have begun to raise questions that could not be raised before. Not long ago, rumors were being spread among the Kuwaiti political elite about a reassessment of the democratic experience and the shortcomings of Kuwaiti political life. Abdul Latif al Duaij, a Kuwaiti writer known for his opposition, wrote about the recent interpellations saying, “We never had a parliament to begin with, or perhaps the problem is that we do have a parliament!”

The political scene in Kuwait has been through many changes from the beginning of the constitutional process in the era of Sheikh Abdullah al Salem al Sabah. The demography changed significantly, and a number of political fundamental currents entered the political arena such as the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers. MPs from the outer regions emerged while nationalist and leftist currents withered away. The country was invaded and fully occupied before being restored to the people of Kuwait and the Saddam Hussein regime was overthrown.

Many developments that would not have crossed the minds of early legislators and the founders of the constitution took place. This, of course, is only natural. The idea of revising or amending the constitution was rejected outright by some people in Kuwait and in truth, no statement or hint has been given by the Emir or any senior official indicating that amendments would be made, despite that the constitution itself allows for this. This is because many people, whether in power or in opposition, believe that the problem is not with the wording but rather with those putting the constitution into effect.

Some Kuwaiti observers and political thinkers are more optimistic and believe that people should be patient towards parliament and the assembly’s hesitation to engage in political battles with the opposition. For instance, Ghanem al Najjar, a professor of political science, sees that the main changes that Kuwait has experienced in the past few years have not been easy and we must be patient and take our time to see the results of these changes. He listed some of these changes:

•In 2003, [for the first time] the Crown Prince was not appointed Prime Minister

•In May 2005, the national assembly granted women full political rights

•In January 2006, the succession law was brought into effect when the national assembly voted for Sheikh Sabah al Ahmed al Jaber al Sabah to take over as Emir of Kuwait [from ailing Sheikh Saad al Abdullah al Sabah]

•The revoking of the Public Gatherings Law through a ruling issued by the Constitutional Court, which ended the monopoly of the press through the new publications law.

•The reduction of electoral constituencies from 25 to five through the Orange Movement.

Because of these shifts, it is imperative that patience is shown until the effect of those changes filters through to Kuwaiti society and Kuwaiti voters. Therefore, this is not a crisis of democratic failure in Kuwait but rather a transitional phase that the country is undergoing.

Anybody who is interested or observing the political situation in Kuwait will see that the situation is split between an optimistic view that adheres to the idea of a constitutional democratic solution and a pessimistic view that fears the bleak prospects of the parliament experience. What is new about this pessimistic trend is not the “old guard” [against changes] or simple minds who do not care about political and philosophical debates about democracy but are much more concerned with the housing crisis, credit and the infrastructure. What is new is the frustration and disappointment regarding democracy among divisions that were traditional supporters of the parliamentary constitutional experience such as traders or even liberal youth. They believe that the unconstitutional dissolution of parliament is not necessarily a bad option and that it would show whether people are still convinced by the necessity of the constitution and parliament and whether they would take a stand in the way that people did at the end of the eighties during the days of the famous Dawaween al Ithnayn [Monday Gatherings]. What is happening in Kuwait does not concern Kuwait alone; it concerns those who question democracy and the extent to which it is suitable to our Arab region.

Do we practice democracy in a superficial way without actually understanding it and the foundations upon which democracy has been built? In other words, are we just practicing some kind of democracy that has no spirit, intellectual and moral essence?

Kuwait has always been a center of attention, and despite its small size, it represents a unique example in every way. The skirmishes between the cabinet and government is important for the Arab world to see. Moreover, Kuwait was the most important political model in the entire Arab Gulf region until Bahrain caught up with it more recently. As a result, it is crucial that the Arab world, which is loaded with crises and changes, must keep track of the transformations taking place in Kuwait and its democratic experience.

The democracy of Kuwait is due to be tested. It has always been a subject of great and rich controversy among the Gulf States. With regards to the results of this test, many questions about the problematic democracy in the Gulf region will be answered, or, at least, we assume that this will be the case.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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