KUWAIT CITY (AP) – It was a painful and public struggle as Kuwait’s parliament and Cabinet stepped to end an unprecedented leadership dispute in a country where tribal honor and ruling family prerogative run deep.
Shortly after parliament voted unanimously Tuesday to oust the ailing emir, who had ascended the throne just nine days earlier, the Cabinet named Prime Minister Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah to take power in the oil-rich U.S. ally.
Despite the embarrassment of an open quarrel within the ruling family, the leadership change served as a clear sign of the growing political maturity, if not full-blown democracy, in this tiny slice of the Mideast.
The appointment of Sheik Sabah, half brother to the emir who died Jan. 15, still requires approval by parliament, where he reportedly enjoys unanimous support. A vote was expected early next week.
With the Bush administration pushing for democracy across the Middle East, Egypt also has a more robust parliament with a strong opposition that has yet to show how active it may be against the ruling regime.
“Today, we were promoted from a Third World country to a first world country,” Fouad Al Hashem, columnist for Al Watan daily, told The Associated Press.
“Power was transferred from one man to the other in a Third World country without the radio station being surrounded by tanks, without soldiers in the streets or leaflets being dropped from helicopters, or journalists arrested.”
The Al Sabah family has run Kuwait since the emirate, wedged between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, was created about 250 years ago.
Kuwaitis seldom questioned the ruling family’s decisions until about two years ago, when concerns over succession were set in motion by the infirmity of those in power, the late emir Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah and his crown prince, Sheik Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, who was deposed Tuesday.
The unprecedented vote by the Kuwaiti legislature came just moments before it received a letter of abdication from Sheik Saad, according to the parliament speaker, Jassem al-Kharafi.
In the end, all members of the ruling family reportedly agreed on Sheik Sabah. Sheik Saad’s immediate family was said to have caused the delay in his abdication letter reaching parliament, which in turn prompted the vote to remove him from power.
“The house listened to the emir’s medical report and it became evident to the house, beyond any doubt, to transfer the emir’s responsibilities permanently,” al-Kharafi told reporters.
“The emir remains in the hearts of all Kuwaiti people. We all love, appreciate and respect him, but this is God’s will,” al-Kharafi added.
The Cabinet, headed by Sheik Sabah, then met for what was a unanimous vote to place him on the throne.
Since the death of Sheik Jaber, his successor had only been seen in public in a wheelchair and he had not spoken to the country.
Legislator Mohammed Jassem al-Saqr told Al-Arabiya TV that Tuesday was a “black day in Kuwait’s political history,” but one that also proved the country’s commitment to its constitution.
Al-Kharafi acknowledged divisions within the royal family over deposing the emir, but denied there had been a leadership crisis.
“We take pride in having followed all our constitutional procedures,”
he said. “In spite of our differences, the spirit of brotherhood prevailed.”
The moves in parliament and the Cabinet eased concern among Kuwaitis unaccustomed to seeing a public spat among their leaders.
“Now we feel at ease. The previous days were difficult with all the rumors. …It would have been difficult if it went on for longer and people started taking sides,” said Bandar al-Shimmiri, a 37-year-old jewelry shop owner.
Civil servant Shaima al-Duwaisan said: “I wept for Sheik Saad. It was difficult to see his rule end like this, but thank God all of us are democratic and we trust the government.”
Before the dispute came to a head Tuesday, parliament had scheduled a swearing in ceremony for Sheik Saad on Tuesday evening. But many Kuwaitis voiced fears he would be unable to recite the oath of office.
Sheik Sabah has run the day-to-day affairs of the country since the late emir and Sheik Saad both fell ill. Sheik Jaber suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2001, and Sheik Saad’s health deteriorated after he was treated for a bleeding colon in 1997.
Both Sheik Saad and Sheik Sabah, the new ruler, are in their mid-70s, but Sheik Sabah is the more fit of the two. He had a heart pacemaker implanted but otherwise is said to be in good health.
The deposed emir is a son of Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah, who is known as the “father of democracy” and the founder of modern Kuwait.