By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: Since late 2010 there have been major political changes in Kuwait. These events continue to challenge the policies of successive Kuwaiti governments to come up with a strategy to both redirect and contain social change in a direction that complements their continued rule.
Much of the current discussions in Kuwaiti politics relate to a single “inflection point” as Kuwait expert Kristen Diwan called it. This event was the storming and occupation of the Kuwait parliament by dozens of activists and a dozen MPs on November 16, 2011. That night is immortalized in the memories of those interested in the country’s politics for years to come. From these events came many seminal firsts in Kuwaiti history: the resignation of a Prime Minister from protests, the largest civil protests in the country’s history, the Karamet Watan (“dignity of the nation”) marches, and that infamous public speech by Musallam Al Barak that led to his imprisonment.
There is a lot of confusion about how it all happened.
How did protesters get into the Assembly hall? Some argue that the door was broken open by the protesters, although the door looks like it could withstand the treads of a tank. More realistically, who opened the door for the protesters? One officer claimed he was ordered to, although subsequent investigations have not corroborated this account. Once in the hall what happened next? Plenty of pictures were circulated that night of the event in the hall.
Another issue was the damage to the Assembly hall. The damages widely vary, anywhere from 300 to 5000KD according to a plethora of reports. Several items were damaged, several chairs a lamp, and most importantly the gavel at the front (it was actually stolen). Were these damages significant? Do they matter?
Were the protesters in the crowd Kuwait citizens? Many Kuwaitis I know who were against the storming argue that the some in the crowd were non-Kuwaiti. Rumours of Saudi license plates on vehicles in the parking lot across abounded.
At the heart of the issue is whether you think the Parliament is sancro-sanct. Do people have the right to storm it? Is it the people’s house, meaning they are allowed to enter as they see fit?
The government did not view the intrusion gently and charged them with a variety of crimes in relation to that night. A lower court had dismissed all charges several years ago, and most Kuwaitis thought the appeals court would either follow suit or issue a mild rebuke.
But the appeals court verdict this November was anything but mild. Current and former Kuwaiti MPs were among the almost 70 defendants sentenced between one and nine years for storming the country’s parliament in 2011. Among those sentenced were eight former MPs and three currently serving in the Assembly. 28 defendants were sentenced to up to five years for “the use of force and inciting unrest”, 23 others were given prison sentences of three years and six months with hard labour for “violent and criminal actions”, five others were given two-year terms for “mobbing and assaulting police officers”, and 10 defendants were given one-year sentences.
How do people see the outcome of the case? Some Kuwaitis “applauded the court’s enforcement of respect for law and order” while others thought it was much too harsh.
Most of those involved turned themselves in immediately after the verdict, including standing MPs like Jumaan Al Harbish, Waleed Al Tabtabaie, and activists like Sulaiman bin Jassim. declaring their love of Kuwait and loyalty to its constitution. While the final court of cassation could lessen or overturn their sentences, the final outcome is not clear yet. A defence lawyer said he would file for a mistrial, saying the hearing was held in the absence of a full defense team.
What are the roots of these different narratives about this night? That evening goes far beyond the events of the ‘Arab Spring’, that old seasonal term that has little of its previous meaning left.
The proximate source of the protests at parliament was the contention surrounding the arrest of Obaid Wasmi, a well-known MP and Law Professor at Kuwait University, on December 8, 2010 during a political seminar to discuss a legal case against another MP. Police attempts to stop the meeting led to a violent encounter by those opposing them. Al Jazeera and other citizen journalists reported the events widely, raising its political significance.
Large groups of young men from Bedouin backgrounds began to gather to discuss the political situation in Kuwait in relation to Wasmi. The events surrounding Wasmi in many ways incited something that was already stirring; marginalization and a feeling of political impotence among those who believed they were marginalized.
Isolated and sporadic at first, various youth groups like KAFI and Fifth Fence planned and organized meetings, seminars, recruiting campaigns at shopping malls, and small sit-ins from February 28, 2011 onwards. In the first major sit-in on March 8 – organized by KAFI – at Al Erada, approximately one thousand protesters demanded the departure of Nasser Al-Mohammad. Though the numbers at the time did not exceed a thousand protesters, in the Kuwaiti context they were nevertheless significant for attracting hundreds more than previous protests. The escalating tensions between the defiant groups and the security forces led to the November 17, 2011 storming of the parliament.
This was truly a significant milestone in Kuwait. No Bedouin youths had ever protested in such a fashion in Kuwait’s history. Yet, what was interesting about this group of youths was their belief in their connection to previous movements, most notably the “Orange Movement” of 2006. Many sported orange ribbons in reference to the revolution in Ukraine.
But the distance between the 2006 movement and that in 2011 couldn’t be further away from each other than Kuwait City and Kiev. The activists from the original Orange Movement were a far cry from the young people mobilizing in 2010 and only briefly supported their aims in the protests in 2011.
The Orange movement was primarily made up of young people from the hadhari areas, areas considered to be populated by the original townspeople of old Kuwait, above the Fifth Ring Road. This movement was coed (unlike the more recent protests) were secular, and was primarily supported by the urban nationalist, leftist movements, and to some degree Shia blocs. In contrast, in 2010, youths were primarily from the tribal areas, and were made up of many youth members from Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The 2006 movement had mobilized to push for the redistricting of the twenty-five parliamentary electoral districts to five; against tribal groups. As Kristin Diwan has noted, “the 2006 protestors were determined to curb the rising influence of the tribes, that constituted some 60 percent of Kuwaiti citizens”. When the government acceded to the movements demands the three largest tribes retaliated in the parliament. In 2009 tribal MPs were at the forefront of the deposits scandal and other corruption scandals; this came to a head in November 2011. Ironically the success of the Orange Movement in 2006 directly led to the rise of the 2011 movement and storming of parliament, although in contrast with almost all their previous objectives.
The 2011 movements ideological views were also very different. This could be no more clearly indicated in their views on the ongoing protests in Bahrain. The Kuwaiti government had taken a very soft tone to protests at the Pearl Roundabout, refusing to take part in the Saudi intervention in the crackdown on protesters in Manama; they merely sent a naval detachment and medical unit). In contrast to Kuwait’s soft tone, many of the youth activists saw the government’s actions as an alliance with Iran. Previously divided tribal, Islamists, and mainstream Sunnis aligned themselves against both the Bahraini uprising and the government. It is a paradox of this protest that the very people who accused the government of being undemocratic also supported the violent crackdown against peaceful protesters in Manama.
Members of Parliament who participated in the opposition movement deserve another article for themselves due to their actions (and inactions). Figures like Ahmed Sadoun, Muhammad Al Mutairi, Waleed Tabtabai, and the infamous Musallam al Barrak figured heavily in the protests themselves, although they had very little to do with their planning or organization. In most ways, they acted as the consummate politicians that they are; taking advantage of a particular opportunity to advance their own political agendas. Read Machiavelli’s The Prince to understand more. Because MPs must spend most of their energy lobbying powerful cabinet ministers for benefits on behalf of their constituencies, many have little interest in defying the basic rules of the political game. In most ways, in my opinion, they acted as spoilers. They acted like they had a plan when they had none. This was the primary problem with the opposition MPs. They are very good at talking but little else.
On more than one occasion at protests, activists had to fight for the microphone back. These attacks on their independence surfaced in a protest in late May when youth activists shouted down the populist Kuwaiti MP attending their rally, evidence that some in the movement are worried about the co-optation that they see as endemic to Kuwait’s patronage-fed political system. Moreover, many viewed the consummate opposition leader Al Barrak “as an opportunist who had needlessly antagonized the government for reasons that had little to do with democracy and more to do with expanding tribal patronage and power”. While criticisms of government policy, corruption, and economic malaise are part of the freedom of the Kuwaiti press, his attempt to reform the system was seen as self-indulgent and diverging from reality. Arab Times reporter Yusuf Awadh al-Azmi stated the reality of many MPs after the protests. Their objectives he says, is simple and “only political tactic they have in their hand is ‘dissent and you will be famous’.
What were the impacts of these events?
Parliamentary opposition made great gains following the events at Al Erada. In the February 2012 parliamentary elections, the election resulted in a 54% turnover of MPs and the inauguration of a majority for opposition MPs. For the first time the majority of MPs were elected on a coalition platform against corruption, the royal family, and economic problems caused by government ineptitude. This was unprecedented in parliamentary politics.
Yet, retrospectively very little changed in the parliament other than the appearance that it had become more damaged by the opposition’s success than otherwise. The opposition was weakened, maybe permanently by the resulting polarization and dysfunction of the political establishment. This led in many ways to a change in public opinion. While many Kuwaitis had adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude to the early successes of the 2011 protestors, the resulting dysfunction has led many of the people I know to prefer the political stability of the former period over the lists of unknowns that results from attempts to reform the system. Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Egypt provide lessons of what can go wrong in these attempts.
Perhaps recent events have cemented these views as the Qatar crisis and the destabilization of the region, creating concern across the political spectrum in Kuwait. On October 24, “Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah stood before the opening session of Kuwait’s Parliament” and issued a rare call for unity. As the current Parliament struggles on after the resignation of the cabinet and the formation of a new one it remains to be seen if we are going to see a period of national unity in the face of these many crises. What is for certain though, is that narratives of that night and the outcome of those events will figure heavily into the political culture of Kuwait for decades to come. Divisions among individuals observing these events and the cases against the activists and MPs will continue till some sort of resolution is heard from the third court. It is my hope that some middle ground should be found to mediate these events and potentially move forward to a time and place where different parties can come to a resolution that does not create long-term grievances which make the political system more unstable in the future. Reconciliation is key to political stability, and in this Kuwaiti needs to work together in these uncertain and dangerous times in the region.
*Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto in Canada. He studies Kuwaiti politics, focusing on the historical development of social and political power in the cooperative societies since the 1940s. Geoffrey is also a freelance write for Zenith Magazine in Germany and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC.