Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 October - 31 November 2012
Issue No. 1120
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Spring in Kuwait?

Has the Arab Spring finally made its way to Kuwait, or will this week's protests melt away as swiftly as they have come, asks Sherine Bahaa

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Protesters run from tear gas during a demonstration against proposed changes to election laws in Kuwait City

The unprecedented gathering of around 150,000 protesters, according to organisers, made this week's protests in Kuwait almost unique. No official figures were released, but the demonstration was seen as the largest political gathering in the history of the state, bringing together all political forces, from the Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood members and Salafis, to liberals, women, Shia, Bedouins and Badoons.

Opposition forces in Kuwait want reform, but they do not want revolution. Since the beginning of the protests, they have said that the dissolution of the parliament would be desirable, that any amendment to the election law would be regarded as an "unconstitutional coup", and that a boycott of the democratic process was inevitable.

The Kuwaiti emir's speech on Friday setting 1 December as the date of the country's elections and calling for a change in the election law sparked the protests. The emir claimed that the amendments to the electoral law were meant to "preserve national unity", further infuriating the demonstrators.

Amendments to the 2006 electoral law would reduce the number of candidates a voter could vote for from four to one. The opposition said that the reduction to a single vote was aimed at ensuring the election of a more compliant parliament, unlike the one elected in February which is dominated by religious and tribal figures.

Warnings by the Kuwaiti interior ministry that it would enforce a zero-tolerance policy on demonstrations failed to make the opposition change its course, and the name "the nation's dignity" was chosen for the date planned for the demonstration.

Video footage purportedly taken of one part of the demonstration and uploaded to the Internet showed hundreds of protesters, many in traditional white robes, streaming past the cameras. Some chanted, "we will not allow you" to change the law, and others clapped in an atmosphere that appeared calm.

Three main points in the capital Kuwait City were chosen for demonstrators to assemble and march on the nearby Seif Palace, which houses the offices of the emir, crown prince and prime minister.

Things did not end peacefully, as Kuwait's elite security forces intervened violently to prevent the demonstrations. Telephone lines went down as networks were overloaded with calls, and earlier in the day the police were put on alert as they tried to prevent people from gathering by cordoning off areas along the demonstration routes in an apparent bid to limit protester numbers.

Later in the day, the police went into action, with riot police using tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets against the protesters, leaving 100 protesters and 11 policemen hurt together with a number of MPs.

More protests and clashes are expected to follow in the tiny oil-rich state where the Al-Sabah family has been ruling for the past 250 years.

On Monday, opposition leaders held meetings to discuss their plan of action and pledged to escalate the protests. The opposition views the amendments to the electoral law as an attempt to undermine their chances of winning seats in the elections.

Former MP Abdallah Al-Barghash said that the opposition would continue its protest campaign until the controversial amendments were withdrawn. "I think we have entered a new phase in which young people are playing a pivotal role," said independent political analyst Dahem Al-Kahtani.

"If no peaceful solution is reached, we could be moving into a scenario similar to [that in neighbouring] Bahrain," Al-Kahtani said, in a reference to the sporadic but persistent street protests against the ruling family there.

"After reaching this stage, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the popular movement to back down... The solution lies in real democratic reforms," he said.

A day later, Kuwaiti authorities gave orders to the security forces to curb dissent by any means, and a statement by the cabinet was published in all local papers on Tuesday warning against the protests.

"Citizens are not allowed to hold a gathering of more than 20 individuals on roads or at public locations without obtaining a permit from the governor concerned," the cabinet said in the statement. "The police are instructed to prevent or disperse any unlicensed groupings."

Kuwait is the only relatively democratic state among the Gulf monarchies. In 1962, it became the first Arab state in the Gulf to draft a constitution and introduce parliamentary elections, though the emir and the al-Sabah family continue to hold major cabinet positions and enjoy tremendous powers.

While large-scale protests such as those that took place in Tunisia and Egypt last year are not on the cards in Kuwait, political bickering between the opposition and the ruling family has been on rise.

Last year, dozens of anti-government protesters muscled their way into parliament during a debate over efforts to question the prime minister about corruption.

Labour upheavals have also obstructed the country's $400 billion development programme and have ended with the dissolution of the Kuwaiti parliament on nine separate occasions, six of them since mid-2006 and twice this year.

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