The Middle East Channel

Kuwait votes, again

Kuwaitis head to the polls on Saturday for the third time in 18 months. During that period, Kuwait's fractious yet vibrant political landscape has been gripped by constitutional uncertainty as the Constitutional Court twice has intervened to annul the results of National Assembly elections. Although much of the energy that briefly threatened to escalate into mass opposition and open confrontation last fall has now dissipated, the outcome nevertheless will constitute the first and largest test of public opinion in the Gulf States in the "post-Arab Spring" aftermath of the Muslim Brotherhood's ouster in Egypt. With Kuwait joining Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in pledging $12 billion to Egypt's interim administration, the election may provide an indication of the direction of political travel in the Gulf's oldest participatory system.

The current elections are taking place after the Constitutional Court ruled on June 16 that the parliament elected in December 2012 was unconstitutional, citing technical irregularities in the emir's decree that set up the National Election Commission in October 2012. The ruling came almost a year to the day since the court found similar procedural flaws in the December 2011 decree that had paved the way for the February 2012 election that resulted in major opposition gains. 

Political life in Kuwait has been in a state of near-stasis since the current emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, came to power in January 2006. Eleven governments have since come and gone as the elected parliament clashed repeatedly with the appointed cabinet led by the emir's nephew, Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammad Al-Sabah. In the absence of legalized political parties, Kuwait's politics became characterized by populist members of parliament (MPs) and initiatives, and susceptible to manipulation by competing ruling family factions. These converged in the sustained, large-scale demonstrations that forced the resignation of the prime minister in November 2011, and laid the seeds of the current political and constitutional uncertainty.

Following the removal of his nephew, Sabah appointed another senior figure in the ruling family, Sheikh Jabir al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, prime minister, and issued decrees annulling the National Assembly that had been elected in May 2009 and ordering fresh elections for February 2012. These resulted in a landslide victory for a loose coalition of tribal and Islamist opposition MPs who won 35 of the 50 seats in parliament. The unprecedented outcome reflected the depth of public concern -- galvanized by the Arab Spring -- at a range of issues, including political corruption and support for political reforms that would transfer more political power to elected institutions and representatives.

This political earthquake was followed by a second in June 2012, when the Constitutional Court annulled the February election and ordered the reinstatement of the assembly elected in 2009 (and dissolved in 2011.) The vocal political and popular opposition saw the move as an attempt by the ruling family to strip them of their electoral gains and vowed to contest the decision both through political means and direct action. Two attempts last summer to reconvene the 2009 assembly failed as the majority of reinstated MPs boycotted the parliamentary sessions in solidarity with the opposition movement. With Kuwaiti politics having ground to a halt, the emir inflamed the situation further with a decree in October 2012 reducing the number of votes each Kuwaiti could cast from four to one.

The National Assembly election on December 1, 2012 took place under the one-vote system and was boycotted by a majority of opposition groups, who contended that only parliament, not the emir, had the right to amend the electoral system. This touched a raw nerve in Kuwaiti politics, as the issue of electoral reform had been a major feature of youth-led public protests in 2005 and a catalyst of the subsequent opposition victory in the June 2006 National Assembly polls. With the ruling family perceived as having changed the electoral system arbitrarily in the past to dilute opposition forces -- notably by reducing the number of constituencies from 25 to 10 in 1981 -- many Kuwaitis believed the emir was overstepping the boundary of his authority by intervening directly in political life.

The December 2012 election took place against the backdrop of extreme political tension, mass protest, and an opposition boycott comprising a loose collection of liberal, Islamist, and tribal blocs. The populist de facto leader of the informal coalition of opposition groups, Musallim al-Barrak, issued an unprecedented threat to the emir at a rally in October, warning him not to drag Kuwait back "into the abyss of autocracy." The slogan "We will not allow you" subsequently became the defiant chant of a series of massive street demonstrations that shook Kuwait in the run-up to the election, and sporadic clashes occurred between groups of increasingly violent groups of youth and riot police across Kuwait City.

The elections themselves returned a new political class to parliament as the boycott of most major tribes and opposition forces allowed new faces to emerge, including 17 Shiite MPs. Shorn of critical voices, the pro-government assembly began to move ahead with major infrastructure and investment projects that formed the cornerstone of Kuwait's ambitious economic diversification and long-term national strategic vision, but had repeatedly been delayed by parliamentary infighting and the chronic breakdown of trust between the elected assembly and the appointed government. The novel sight of a parliament and government working with, rather than against, each other was tempered by the realization that such a state of affairs was not likely to last for long, with the parliament extending its operating hours in a bid to pass as much legislation as possible before its term ended.

Kuwait's two elections in February and December 2012 highlighted the polarization that briefly threatened to spiral out of control. And yet, the migration of the political opposition away from the parliamentary chamber did not prove as destabilizing as many observers predicted. The loose umbrella of opposition groups failed to agree on a common political platform and started to break up. This process of fragmentation accelerated when a concerted outreach campaign by senior ruling family members resulted in the leaders of several of Kuwait's largest tribes declaring their intention to reenter the political process and run candidates in Saturday's election. In addition, the protracted political stalemate has reinforced feelings of political apathy and cynicism with the electoral process, which are likely to be compounded by the fact that the vote is being held during Ramadan.

Short of the "game-changing" reforms to the political system that would address repairing the broken relationship between the parliament and the government, few people believe that anything substantive will change as a result of holding more elections. The lack of excitement or expectation is palpable and in stark contrast to the supercharged context of the previous two polls. Instead, it is the regional dimensions that may be most revealing in what they say about political attitudes in the emirate and across the Gulf. Kuwait's Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the Islamic Constitutional Movement, is boycotting the election amid a rising tide of anger among its members at the Kuwaiti government's political and financial support for the military-led removal of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. With Kuwait boasting the least restrictive political system of all six of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, analysts will examine the outcome for clues as to the likely future trajectory of political trends in a region once again in a state of flux.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

U.S. suspends the delivery of fighter jets to Egypt

The Obama administration announced it is delaying the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Pentagon spokesman George Little said, "Given the current situation in Egypt, we do not believe it is appropriate to move forward at this time with the delivery of the F-16s." The fighter jets are part of a deal with Egypt for 20 F16s in total, eight of which have already been delivered. Since the Egyptian military's removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency on July 3, the United States has maintained the shipment would go forward, but U.S. officials said they were disturbed by the recent course of events. The move is the first interruption of military funding to Egypt and a sign that the United States is rethinking its decision not to withhold military assistance to Egypt. The U.S. administration has hesitated designating the ouster of Morsi a military coup, which would require the United States to cut off aid, estimated at $1.3 billion per year. U.S. administration officials said President Barack Obama wanted to send Egypt's military rulers a signal of U.S. displeasure with the current chaotic situation, the detention of Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders, and the transition process that has not included the MB.

Headlines

  • The conflict in Syria has cut the country's wheat harvest by more than half in a blow to President Assad's policy of food self-sufficiency while under severe international sanctions.
  • Kuwait will hold parliamentary elections on Saturday, for the sixth time since 2006, and prominent opposition members are expected to boycott.
  • Israeli energy minister, Silvan Shalom, said he believes Israeli and Palestinian talks will begin Tuesday in Washington, however the date has not been confirmed.
  • The UAE embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli was hit with a grenade Thursday, causing no injuries, but adding to several attacks recently on foreign, mainly western, targets in the country.
  • The crackdown on Islamist militants in Sinai by Egypt's new military rulers is causing a significant decline in Gaza's economy with the closure of nearly 80 percent of the tunnels used for smuggling.

Arguments and Analysis

'Saving Egypt's Third Democratic Revolution' (Bassem Sabry, Al-Monitor)

"The new administration must make it abundantly clear that the days of the Mubarak regime and what it represented are truly over, as many worry that Egypt will end up returning to a more evolved and polished version of pre-January 25. One area in which it can strongly send this message is police reform, something that never truly got the attention it needed after the revolution and still seems unlikely to be addressed in today's environment, especially given that many hail the police as heroes.

Media reform is another area in need of care. State-owned media must be freed of political influence, the body of media legislation dusted off and the much-anticipated new national media regulatory agency brought to life in a manner that inspires optimism. Furthermore, the Information Ministry can only be abolished. The new cabinet announced its intention to do so, but thus far has not. Morsi had retained the position of information minister during his time in power despite earlier promises to abolish it as well. The government will now also need to address the situation of the 'suspended' Islamist channels. 

The length of the transition should not be stretched out for no good reason, and the steps taken must proceed briskly, but without compromising the quality of the output. Amendment of the constitution comes before everything else, despite some calls to the contrary. The new, ten-strong amendment committee, composed of members of the judiciary and legal experts, has already begun its work, and there have been voices calling for revisiting how its work can better be influenced by national stakeholders. Their proposed amendments must in the end represent a broad national consensus, making theirs a very difficult, but not impossible task."

'Containing the Fire in Syria' (Ryan Crocker, Real Clear World)

"Much has been said about a political settlement. The conditions are simply not present. Neither the opposition nor the regime is ready to deal seriously with each other, and the opposition is too divided in any event to develop a coherent position. Nor will a meeting between regime representatives and opposition elements in exile produce meaningful outcome, even if it could be convened. The influence of the exiles on those actually doing the fighting is approximately zero.

So what are the options? First, to recognize that as bad as the situation is, it could be made much worse. A major western military intervention would do that. And lesser steps, such as a no-fly zone, could force the West to greater involvement if they proved unsuccessful in reducing violence. The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come. Like a major forest fire, the most we can hope to do is contain it. And it's already spreading. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria have merged, and car bombs in Iraq are virtually a daily occurrence as these groups seek to reignite a sectarian civil war. The United States has a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We must use it to engage more deeply with the Iraqi government, helping it take the steps to ensure internal cohesion. This was a major challenge during my tenure as ambassador, 2007-2009, and the need now is critical.

I was in Lebanon recently, where the outgoing prime minister gloomily predicted a renewed civil war of which there are already signs with clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli, in the northeast and attacks on Hezbollah-controlled areas in Beirut. If the violence spreads, the Palestinians will join forces with the Lebanese Sunnis against the Shia, and that in turn will radicalize Palestinians in Jordan's already fragile monarchy. Both countries need our security and economic support, for the refugee influx and their security forces.

This will be a long war. There is little the United States can do to positively influence events in Syria. Our focus must be on preventing further spillover beyond its borders. There may come a point where exhaustion on both sides makes a political solution possible. We are nowhere near that point. And my fear is that at the end of the day, the Assad regime prevails. We must be ready for that too."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Cherie A. Thurlby/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images