Kuwait City, Asharq Al-Awsat – As Kuwait prepares for its twelfth legislative elections since the constitution was adopted in 1962, the state has been witnessing clashes between the security forces and a number of tribal figures over the past two weeks. Several tribesmen have been accused by the government of organizing preliminary elections [among the tribes] that are deemed illegal by the Kuwaiti constitution to select their representatives in the upcoming parliamentary elections to be held on May 7, 2008.
The tribes resort to this practice as a means of ensuring that their votes will be united – but the government is against it and is furthermore supported by a law that views this phenomenon as prioritizing the tribe at the expense of the state and believes that tribal members are attempting to propagate sectarian loyalty over national affiliation.
Over this past year alone, numerous clashes have broken out leading the Interior Ministry to intensify its confrontational forces, which include plainclothes security officers and anti-riot forces, in addition to conducting raids that are supported by the Public Prosecution Office. In the later stages of the conflict, tear gas and rubber bullets have reportedly been used to disperse the crowds.
Two confrontations took place between the security forces and a group of tribesmen; the first happened last month in front of the Criminal Investigations Department after a crowd of Ajman tribesman stormed the building in an attempt to free their fellow tribesmen who were detained within. Those in detention were accused of organizing illegal tribal elections. Security forces were compelled to resort to anti-riot police and use tear gas to quell the chaos.
However, renewed clashes broke out this past week between security forces, backed by special forces in armored vehicles and helicopters, and 1,000 men from al Awazem tribe in the Sabahhiya district, according to AFP. The showdown took place after members of al Awazem tribe were charged with holding illegal elections in which 3,000 men participated to select four candidates.
Following the clashes, tribal representatives threatened to hold Minister of Interior Sheikh Jaber al Khalid and Prime Minister Nasir Muhammed al Sabah accountable if they won seats in parliament, stating that the ministers are legally and constitutionally responsible for the damage and injury suffered by tribes during these confrontations.
But despite the Interior Ministry’s attempts to curb the tribal elections by force, tribal members in Kuwait were able to hold the elections and choose their representatives.
Former MP and candidate from the fifth constituency Abdullah Rai al Fahma who has been accused of participating in the al Awazem tribal elections and whose office has been raided by security men said, “The manner by which the raid was conducted desecrates democracy and what took place was chaotic and far removed from the law,” he said.
“Detaining over 100 members of al Awazem tribe and handcuffing them as though they were criminals when they haven’t done anything to deserve such treatment is unacceptable. Also, raiding houses is totally unacceptable. What took place is not what Kuwait has pledged; in fact, even the Iraqi security forces did not carry out such practices during the brutal occupation of Kuwait in 1990,” he said.
Two statements issued by the Interior Ministry confirmed that it did not use excessive force or rely on abuse to break up the riots but that it had resorted to force as a means of self-defense and in order to disperse the crowds after failing to negotiate with them. It also stressed its pursuit of prosecuting all violators participating in unofficial elections and anyone who incites or participates in riots and stirs up chaos, moreover affirming that they will be referred to jurisdiction.
Furthermore, the ministry indicated that the special forces had not used their full capabilities and denied using bullets, rubber or otherwise, and added, “The presence of the special forces was [required] to implement the orders issued by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The Interior Ministry has favored to implement its action by means of civilized negotiations.”
Over the past two weeks, the Public Prosecution has summoned approximately 300 members of the al Awazem, Ajman and al Rashaida tribes to be investigated over various charges related to organizing and participating in unofficial elections.
It is worth noting that Kuwait passed an electoral reform bill in Kuwaiti electoral law in 1998 that criminalizes “anyone who organizes, participates in, or propagates unofficial elections.” Unofficial or ‘tangential’ elections have been defined as, “those that are unofficially held before the set time to select one or more individuals who are affiliated to a certain class or tribe.”
Although until this year the government had previously turned a blind eye to the unofficial tribal elections since the law was passed, such as those that were held before the parliamentary elections in 1999, 2003 and 2006; this time it was uneasy with the outcome of the elections. But the change in political circumstances and the amendment of the electoral system has compelled the government to take action with regards to the unofficial tribal elections. This was aimed at thwarting certain figures that the government regards as influential from reaching parliament.
As there are those who believe that the unofficial tribal elections incite sectarianism and harm the cohesion of the fabric of society, there are also others who support these elections. According to legal researcher Fahd al Anzi, those who support such elections cite, “the Kuwaiti constitution’s capacity for freedom of opinion and expression. They regard these elections as an expression of freedom, as well as a selection process held by the members of a large family in which participation is optional and the results of which are not binding. There are some who won seats in the parliamentary elections who had not participated in the tribal elections, and vice versa.”
While the tribes strongly back their practices, the political arena is full of oppositional voices criticizing what is taking place within the framework of the tribal system and outside of it. Such attacks can sometimes be brutal, such as what journalist Mohammed al Wisheyhi endured when he was accused of deserting his tribe after objecting to some procedures in the electoral process held by Ajman tribe in his column in the local ‘Al-Raei’ newspaper.
Al Wisheyhi revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat, “What I have written was welcomed by the tribe’s elite and I always receive support and I am told to continue my criticism of the tribal elections, despite the fact that those opposing me and my cousins within the tribe view that I have abandoned the tribe and accuse me of using my criticism to rise to fame in the media.”
Al Wisheyhi sums up his main point of contention as, “the tribe’s role must be limited to the social aspect only and it must stay away from politics.”
He believes that, “Tribal elections kill the tribe internally; there are small marginalized sub-tribes within the tribe that are not recognized and who are more qualified but who are overlooked because the majority takes over in the elections, and the opportunities are always available to the members of the prominent sub-tribes.”
The Kuwaiti journalist told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Tribesman should participate in the legislative elections without relying on the results of the tribal elections so as to divorce it from tribal affiliation – even if they do not win the elections. It must also be understood that the tribes will not stop holding their elections by means of external force and that the decision can only come from within through the influential and wise elite.”
Sociology professor at Kuwait University Ali al Zoaibi said, “The solution is to create a homogenous and harmonious state politically and ideologically. This can be achieved by transforming Kuwait into one electoral constituency in which all voters have the right to elect their representatives, and that should also be accompanied with social and educational programs built around the concept of a Kuwait for Kuwaitis.”
Interestingly, he revealed that the tribal elections “were supported by the ruling regime since 1975. The first tribal election was held on governmental premises; a practice that took place until 1981,” he said and added, “The government’s objective in supporting the tribal elections is to guarantee that its biggest supporters from the tribes win seats. That is why the government was not against these elections; in fact, some [within the previous governments] used to support them.”
In terms of the government’s shift in position with regards to the most recent tribal elections, Dr. al Zoaibi said, “There is conflict among the royal family over the past tribal elections; some believe that it is positive since the most prominent members will reach government, while others believe that their interest lies in eliminating potential opponents before the parliamentary elections by putting an end to the tribal elections.”
Sources have revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the tribal elections take place over four stages; first, the selection of an organizational committee (usually the outcome is the selection of a representative for every sub-tribe); second, the registration of candidates; third, the selection of a sample of voters comprised of male tribesmen (usually random) and finally, the process of ballots, counting and announcing the results.
Candidates pay fees to participate, some of which reach 10,000 Kuwaiti Dinars (approximately US $35,000), all of which are used to cover the expenses of the internal electoral process and the propaganda needs of the candidates who win the elections [and qualify for the parliamentary ones].
However, following the law criminalizing all elections based on sectarian or tribal basis in 1998, the committees organizing the tribal elections have allocated part of the total aforementioned sum for the cost of lawyers and for other legal expenses.
According to the official census published by ‘Al-Raei’ newspaper earlier this week: the number of eligible voters in Kuwait is 361,000 of which 51 percent are tribesmen.
Al Awazem tribe is the most prominent among the tribes, securing 9.5 percent of the total votes, followed by al Matran, 8 percent; Ajman, 6 percent; al Rashaida, 5 percent, followed by the rest of the tribes in varying proportions.