The Middle East Channel

Kuwait's constitutional showdown

The world awoke to a new front in the Arab Spring as thousands of protestors fought through guards to occupy Kuwait's Parliament on Wednesday night. Chanting "this is our house" and "the people want the removal of the Prime Minister" the youthful crowd, accompanied by opposition parliamentarians, certainly looked the part of Arab revolutionaries. Yet Kuwait has been working toward this climax since before Tunisians took to the streets of Sidi Bouzeid. And while drawing momentum from Arab brethren in Egypt and elsewhere, Kuwait activists are not seeking regime overthrow but rather something even more rare -- a genuine constitutional monarchy in the Gulf.

Kuwait is a natural candidate for such a distinction. Its proud tradition of civic activism goes back to the 1930s when prominent merchant families formed their own municipal council and then forced upon the governing sheikh the first elected Majlis in the Gulf. With its independence in 1961, Kuwait's elite gathered in a constitutive assembly, which established Kuwait's ruling order: an emir who stands above the fray appointing a government headed by the ruling al-Sabah family, but with significant powers of legislation and oversight held by an elected parliament. Twice the ruling family has done away with the nuisance of parliament through its unconstitutional dissolution. But since its reinstatement following Kuwait's liberation from Iraq, the Parliament has assumed a central position in Kuwaiti life. It is fair to say that the National Assembly is essential to Kuwait's very identity.

Yet there remains a key distinction between Kuwait's order and a genuine constitutional monarchy -- a distinction that maintains the primacy of the ruling al-Sabah, and generates endless friction with elected representatives. The elected political factions (Kuwait has no legal parties) do not select the cabinet, whose members stand as ex-officio members of parliament (MPs), providing the government with a key voting bloc. Elected MPs are thus unable to set pro-actively the policy of government, having only the power to call the ministers to account through parliamentary grillings, and to dismiss them if they can summon the majority in a vote of no confidence -- a vote to which ex-officio members are excluded.

This "negative" power has been used increasingly in the post-liberation order. During the tumultuous five-year reign of the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, parliamentary grillings and the threat to withdraw support for ministers have resulted in the shuffling of seven cabinets, and on three occasions have compelled the Emir to dismiss the Parliament and call for new elections. This dizzying return to the ballot box eased only after the 2009 elections decimated the organized Islamist political blocs, and returned a Parliament with more independents and a less coherent opposition. The augmented support for the government allowed the Nasser al-Mohammed government to shift tactics: confident of success, the Premier for the first time stood for a vote of no confidence in December 2009, and won.

However the election of Kuwait's most pro-government Parliament since liberation did not end the political intrigue. For the conflict between Kuwait's executive and legislative branches has been matched by the in-fighting within the ruling family itself. Since the contentious succession of 2006, rival princes have been fighting a proxy battle for influence through Kuwait's expanded private media and through the Parliament itself. This leadership struggle has stymied government-led economic diversification plans, further eroded the effectiveness of public services, and sown corruption throughout Kuwait's governing institutions.  

New evidence of the growth in corruption has been mounting for months. In August reports leaked to the media indicated that Kuwait's two largest banks were looking into the transfer of $92 million dollars into the accounts of two members of Parliament. By September, Kuwait's Public Prosecutor took the unprecedented move of opening an investigation into an ever-broadening number of politically suspicious transactions, resulting in allegations that around 16 MPs received about $350 million in bribes to vote in support of the government earlier this year. In October, the scandal spread to the Foreign Ministry on accusations by the parliamentary opposition members that the Prime Minister had diverted public funds to personal accounts abroad. This prompted the resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Salem al-Sabah, the lone minister from a rival branch of the ruling al-Sabah, who cited his unwillingness to serve in "a government that does not carry out true reforms regarding the multi-million bank deposits."

The scandal eroded the Premier's already declining support with the public, and (ironically) hindered his ability to mount an effective defense in Parliament. Opposition MPs returning to a new parliamentary session in October boycotted committee meetings, refusing to sit with colleagues rumored to be corrupt. In November, the defection of the nominally supportive secular and pro-business National Action Bloc marked a turning point: the opposition now had the votes it needed to put through a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. This left the Emir with poor options. He would have to yield to the demands to replace his nephew -- implicitly conceding greater parliamentary control over government leadership -- or dissolve the Parliament, and face new elections in a very anti-government environment.

Returning from the Eid recess on Tuesday, the al-Sabah-led government played a final card. A controversial ruling returned by the constitutional court in October stated that the Prime Minister could not be grilled for violations committed by his ministers, only for issues under his direct authority. Using the ex-officio cabinet members as a voting bloc, government supporters scrapped a proposed grilling of the Prime Minister, signaling a new strategy to sidestep any future moves toward a vote of no confidence over the graft scandal. Opposition lawmakers decried this as "a clear attempt to prevent the lawmakers from exercising their constitutional right to question the Prime Minister," and a dubious means of escaping popular accountability.

The blockage in the National Assembly presaged a return to the extra-parliamentary strategy of popular mobilization. Declaring that "no medium of escalation would be spared" the opposition led by the tribal populist Popular Action Bloc had for weeks been holding seminars across electoral constituencies pushing for the trial of those involved in the bribery scandal, new elections, and the ouster of the government and its leaders. Youth movements, emboldened by the success of popular movements across the Arab world, set up an encampment in the public park outside the Parliament. On Wednesday one youth leader tweeted that "no solution will come from within the parliamentary halls of Abdullah al-Salem, but instead must come to it."  On Wednesday night, in the course of a raucous protest, they did just that.

While it is clear that the storming of the Parliament crosses a threshold, it is unclear what is on the other side for Kuwait. The youthful protestors broke other red lines in directly taunting the Emir: a constitutional offense for which a number of Kuwaiti cyber activists were recently jailed. Will the public see this as going too far? Most Kuwaitis want reform but there is no appetite for revolution in this wealthy oil monarchy. A sign of such wariness can be seen in the statement issued by the liberal National Action Bloc that "the storming of the parliament is no less dangerous than what the government is doing." There exist deep social cleavages in Kuwait -- sectarian and also urban elite fears of the empowerment of the largely tribal classes which have been at the forefront of the protests -- which the ruling family can accentuate in drawing the public to the side of a law and order government. Yet too strong a crackdown will likely backfire against the government, just as it did in December of last year after the police attacked a political gathering of oppositionists, beating academics and parliamentarians.

The Kuwait opposition also faces difficult decisions about how to position itself on Kuwait's constitutional order. Thus far popular action has been framed as a defense of Kuwait's constitution in the face of official corruption and political subterfuge. Yet, the recent government maneuvers in the Parliament reveal more than ever the weaknesses in Kuwait's constitutional system. Already one of Kuwait's opposition parties, the Islamist Reform and Development Bloc, has called for amending the constitution to deny the voting rights of the ex-officio members. Yet opening the constitution to change carries substantial risks as well, especially as the constitution forms a bedrock for national unity -- a point made repeatedly this past week as Kuwait celebrated 49 years since its enactment.

It is equally unclear what Kuwait's dalliance with the Arab Spring may mean for the broader Gulf. Watching Wednesday's events is the Qatar government happy that they pro-actively announced parliamentary elections for Spring 2013, or are they regretting opening the Pandora's box of an elected legislative body? Is Saudi Arabia, with troops in Bahrain, anxiously eyeing another popular rebellion on the Gulf littoral, or are they privately enjoying "democratic" Kuwait's troubles? 

All turns on the outcome of Kuwait's constitutional struggle. The Kuwaiti youth who took the seats of lawmakers and cabinet members in Abdullah al-Salem hall may have basked in their capture of the people's house. But occupying the Parliament is not the same as assembling an effective opposition within it, an opposition able to appoint its own government and form a majority coalition that works for the betterment of all Kuwaitis. For that, a long political struggle remains, and the jury is still out.

Kristin Smith Diwan is an assistant professor of comparative and regional studies at the American University School of International Service.

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Kuwaitis storm parliament calling for removal of the Prime Minister

Kuwaitis storm parliament calling for removal of the Prime Minister

Kuwaiti demonstrators and some opposition members of parliament broke into the parliament building yesterday demanding that Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah step down over allegations of corruption after efforts to march to his house were blocked. Activists have been holding protests for months, but this is the first instance of political violence since December. At least five demonstrators and six security officials were reported injured in the encounter. Kuwait has avoided the mass demonstrations of much of the rest of the region due in part to its active and elected parliament and strong social welfare system. However, tensions have been increasing with claims that about 16 Members of Parliament have received over $350 million in bribes and the failure of the Prime Minister to address questions by the opposition over corruption. Frequent challenges by the opposition have forced al Sabah to resign six times since he was appointed in 2006. In a public announcement, the emir of Kuwait "stressed respect for the law, and urged no leniency with any infringement on national institutions."

Headlines  

  • After confirming Syria's suspension, the Arab League offered Syria a three-day extension to end violence before imposing economic sanctions.
  • France summoned the Israeli ambassador after France's consul in Gaza and family were injured in an Israeli airstrike
  • The United States warned Egypt of potential unrest if the military council doesn't move more quickly in a transition to civilian control.
  • Iraq executed a Tunisian man for bombing a revered Shiite shrine in 2006 sparking sectarian violence that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
  • In a two-day meeting of the IAEA after the release of its report on Iran, the group's head, Yukiya Amano, suggested a mission to Iran to address issues in the report.

Daily Snapshot

Kuwaitis demonstrators storm the Kuwaiti National Assembly in Kuwait City on November 16, 2011, after police and elite forces beat up protesters marching on the prime minister's home to demand he resign, an opposition MP said. Tension has been building in Kuwait over the past three months after it was alleged that about 16 MPs in the 50-member parliament received about $350 million (259 million euros) in bribes (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images). 

Arguments & Analysis

'The Syria Game of Thrones' (Tony Karon, Time)

"Despite their common interest in tackling Assad, many of those Arab regimes don't much like the idea of Turkish influence spreading much more than they like the idea of Iranian influence spreading -- except that in this instance, Iran concurs! Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu this week rejected domestic criticism that Turkey's pressure on Assad was "subcontracting" for the U.S. Turkey's foreign policy was based on principle, he said. Sometimes "it might be in harmony with the United States; sometimes with Iran, sometimes with Russia, sometimes with the EU." Turkey would not be deterred from a position simply because it was in accord with Washington's -- but as it has demonstrated over the past three years, nor will it abide by U.S. positions with which it differs." 

'Beyond the Palestinian setback at the UN' (Daniel Levy, Council on Foreign Relations)

"The tactics that the Palestinians are employing probably create more discomfort for the United States than they do for Israel. You have an Israeli-Palestinian reality, which is looking increasingly irresolvable and increasingly questioning the very possibility of a two-state solution. There's a whole new set of other problems for the United States as it manages its relationship with Egypt and other Middle East states. I think the challenge for the United States is, given all the limitations of American policy, whether it can prevent further deterioration and further problems in 2012." 

'Assad will only go if his own tanks turn against him' (Robert Fisk, The Independent)

"Does the Arab League's threat of suspension really matter? I suspect not - but clearly the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem thinks very differently. He said that the league had taken "an extremely dangerous step" in threatening Syria and that US support for the league's decision was "incitement". Armour had already left Syrian cities, prisoners were being released, armed insurgents were being offered an amnesty. YouTube bounced back with video of a Russian-made armoured vehicle firing thousands of rounds down a Homs street and a photograph of a half-naked murdered Syrian, hands tied behind his back, lying in a Homs street. But murdered by whom? One thing is now clear. Quite apart from the massive civilian casualties, even opponents of the regime now admit that Assad faces an armed insurgency. This may originally have been a myth promoted by the regime, but the monster has now been born."

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