Over the past year a steady stream of youth activists and political critics has filled the dockets of Kuwait's courts. Charged for their actions during street protests or for tweets deemed insulting to the emir, their presence attests to both the emergent confrontational ethos among the younger generation and the erosion of Kuwait's standing as the Gulf's most free political society. But the latest Kuwaiti to appear before the judiciary on the charges of challenging the country's ruler is no ordinary citizen. Musallam al-Barrak is Kuwait's most popular politician, and for some, the conscience of the nation.
His sentencing on Monday to five years of hard labor for a speech he gave in October 2012 has deepened Kuwait's political crisis. For two nights the opposition has gathered by the tens of thousands in solidarity, many defiantly reprising the famous lines directly challenging the emir that led to his conviction. On Wednesday the political standoff turned violent as special forces raided one of his homes in an attempt to arrest him, and allegedly mistreated some of his relatives. That night after Barrak gave a speech punctuated by celebratory gunfire, thousands of his supporters marched on a local police station. Security forces met them with tear gas and stun grenades resulting in many injuries.
As the smoke clears from fires that resulted from Wednesday's clashes, the path forward for Kuwait is uncertain. But it is a good bet that the man at the center of the current crisis will play a prominent role, for good or for ill. For the past two decades Musallam al-Barrak has shown a talent for transgressing the rules of Kuwaiti politics. His ascent to the leadership of Kuwait's diverse opposition movement reflects not only a shifting political order, but also a changing society. Whether the current escalation in the standoff marks the path to a parliamentary democracy or a descent into political polarization and sustained conflict will itself be a measure of the man and how far he has transformed Kuwait.
Barrak rose to prominence in the parliamentary politics of the post-liberation order. In the 1990s Kuwait's opposition was defined by two competing trends: liberal and Islamist. The two sides occasionally cooperated to press for accountability from an al-Sabah executive chastened by Kuwait's occupation at the hands of Iraq. But more often they competed for the favor of the government, earning ministerial posts that could connect them to political patronage for their supporters, and influence to project their competing social agendas.
Barrak's political initiation was apart from both of these two trends. He cut his teeth in the municipalities, rising to a position of leadership in the employee trade unions. After joining the parliament in 1996*, he became a strong labor advocate for Kuwait's public sector employees, which represent a majority of citizens in this petro-welfare state. In defending their benefits, he often clashed with government plans for privatization and stood against the large projects which were seen to benefit the business elite who had close ties with the ruling family.
In entering the parliament, he followed the path of his father, and relied upon the support of his powerful Mutair tribe. Yet as a second generation member of parliament (MP), he embodied the significant social changes taking place in Kuwait's "tribal" constituencies. Kuwait's outer districts are dominated by tribes that were naturalized by the government and politically empowered as a counterweight to the more demanding politics of Kuwait's urban core, which was in the thrall of leftist and Arab nationalist politics in the 1950s. Over time, however, this politically quiescent population became more educated, more exposed to the outside world, and less content with their parliamentary "service candidates" which faithfully brought jobs and benefits in exchange for their political loyalty.
Barrak represented this new generation and a new type of politics. He refused to participate in the tribal primaries that are illegal in Kuwait but widely held by these extended families to maximize their presence in the National Assembly. This independence alongside his blistering attacks against the merchant elite won him supporters well beyond his own tribe. In his last election in 2012 he garnered more votes than any politician in Kuwait's history.
While his rhetoric against corruption was uncompromising, his political alliances within the parliament were calculated. He sought the counsel and forged a political partnership with the venerable opposition leader and former Speaker Ahmed al-Saadoun, known for his staunch defense of the parliament against the executive and for his detailed knowledge of parliamentary procedure. In 2001 the two played a central role in the formation of the Popular Action Bloc, a coalition of like-minded MPs pursuing populist economic policies and committed to strong parliamentary oversight of public money and constitutional protections.
The Popular Action Bloc marked a novel innovation in Kuwaiti politics. It incorporated MPs from across both "tribal" and "urban" constituencies, also including Shiite Islamist MPs who dissented from the more politically conservative Shiite merchant class. The prominence of tribal MPs within an explicitly oppositional and national parliamentary coalition reflected the increasing political maturity of Kuwait's tribes, and their growing political weight. It also reflected Barrak's independence from the more ideological Sunni Islamist movements, which were also making inroads among Kuwait's tribal constituencies.
In the mid-2000s the Popular Action Bloc threw its support behind the new transgressors of political boundaries in Kuwait: reform-minded youth movements. The Orange Movement of 2006 boasted new means of political organization and activism, as internet-savvy youth, organized public rallies and mobilized popular pressure for the reform of Kuwait's electoral districts. While the movement was led by mostly liberal youth, many of whom had been involved in student politics in the United States, their innovations captured the imagination of the broader public. By 2009 their tactics had diffused to new youth movements, more tribal and Islamist in composition, which led the charge against the perceived abuses of the standing prime minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah.
This new political environment, further energized by the street politics of the Arab uprisings in 2011, provided a natural platform for the hard hitting Barrak. The emir's decision to unilaterally change the electoral system after the dissolution of a strongly oppositional parliament in 2012 on a technicality by the constitutional court, proved the trigger for his biggest transgression of all: a direct challenge to the emir. In a blistering speech in October 2012, he shattered the political norm elevating the emir above the political fray and safeguarding his unquestioned authority, declaring: "We will not let you, your highness, take this country into autocracy."
The audacity of the phrase has since been repeated at rallies and rhythmically sounded out on car horns. But it also substantially raised the fear of many urban Kuwaitis who question his judgment and lament his willingness to drive the country further into crisis. It also landed Barrak in the legal predicament he is now facing.
As the government contemplates what to do with Barrak, the question is raised: Will time in jail elevate his national stature, marking him, as some supporters have proposed, as Kuwait's first elected prime minister? Or will his penchant for escalation and his tribal support turn the urban populace against the Opposition Coalition composed of the Popular Action Bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic Constitutional Movement, unions, and student groups and its call for an elected government?
The answer may be determined by transgressions of another sort: those of the government. While the pro-government parliament clamored for Barrak's arrest, many in Kuwait recoiled at the invasive police tactics deployed, reminiscent of an earlier raid on a private diwaniya in December 2011 that served to coalesce the opposition and mobilize new youth movements. This respect for order and for the law drives the framing of both government and opposition, as both seek to have the constitution on their side.
Regardless of the fate of Barrak, his evolution indicates deeper problems for the traditional means of monarchical rule. As the Kuwaiti government, and indeed other governments across the Gulf, turns to traditional pillars of authority -- the tribes, Islamist allies -- they are finding them unreliable mediators, less able to control and speak for their constituencies. Not only new tactics, but new institutions, may be required to meet the needs -- and to capture the promise -- of a changing Gulf society.
*correction -- article originally stated Barrack joined the parliament in 2006.
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