The Middle East Channel

Kuwait's vanishing opposition

On a recent evening in the Maidan Hawalli neighborhood of Kuwait City, dozens of liberals gathered to discuss why an opposition movement that just months ago brought thousands to the streets has all but disappeared.

In 2012, a broad-tent coalition of liberals and Islamists, youth and tribal leaders, led a series of mass protests calling for an electoral boycott and reforms -- even an elected prime minister. Kuwait's Arab Spring -- involving less tectonic but still significant changes -- seemed in the making. Yet now, just under a year later, sporadic demonstrations draw only dozens, and the momentum is gone.  

Cramped into a tiny room in a run-down office building, the activists pointed fingers and sighed exasperated sighs. They blamed one another or the government or general naivety. But all of them agreed about one thing: they are divided amongst themselves now that they lack any unifying goal.

"The opposition made its constituency feel let down. They were not able to analyze the political scene. They had problems organizing," one man in the audience accused in a single breath. "It's basically impossible to get the opposition all in the same position, and that's healthy," a speaker at the event, leftist politician Anwar Al Fikr, countered. "Ok, we have various opinions," another speaker from the left-leaning Progressive Current, Sager Hajaj, added. "But we have to stop criticizing each other."

Whoever is to blame -- and a need to assign blame may be part of the problem -- Kuwait's opposition today is down, if not totally out. It has few seats in the new parliament. It has divided into at least two separate coalitions that don't work together except tacitly. Its strongest leaders and personalities have conflicts between them. And dozens if not hundreds of young activists and former members of parliament are facing charges that take up most of their time, from illegal gathering to insulting the emir, an act which is prohibited in Kuwait's Constitution.

"We could be sick for now, but the patient hasn't died," said Progressive Current general coordinator, Dhari Al Rujabi of the opposition.

It is also simply unclear what opposition figures want and whether they are willing to sacrifice their comfortable lifestyles, generous welfare benefits, and relative stability to get there. Those are questions some in the opposition cannot answer themselves -- and will probably have to before their movement is revived.

The shift backward comes in stark contrast to the opposition's recent momentum, built over nearly half a decade. Beginning in 2009, a group of youth began loudly nudging the country's politicians toward reform. They organized amongst themselves and called for reform to the voting districts under the umbrella of an "orange movement." In 2011, they stormed the parliament, eventually forcing the prime minister to resign. Slowly, Kuwait's established Islamist and tribal politicians followed their lead and called for change, after decades of allying with the government.

By 2012, the youth were calling for an elected prime minister and the legalization of political parties.  After months of convincing, the older opposition politicians acceded to those demands and young activists shaped an agenda that would have reimagined Kuwait's political system.

But it wasn't until the fall of that year that the opposition movement took off. While parliament was out of session, the emir issued changes to the parliamentary electoral law, limiting the number of votes each person could cast from four to one -- a change that eliminated the possibility of coalition voting. Protests under the banner Karamat Watan, or "dignity of the nation," took over the city center. When police broke up the demonstrations with tear gas, the subsequent protests only got larger.

At the time, opposition activists argued that their divisions would not scupper their cooperation. Islamists, tribalists, young, and old could agree that they opposed the emiri decree and wanted more political participation. But today they seem to have fallen victim to their critics' predications that a perilously large coalition would split.

"They have a problem inside themselves," said Nawaf Al Hendel, a human rights activist. "There are many agendas from many different people."

The liberals' own internal divisions offer a glimpse at just how little agreement there is. In June, when the country's highest court affirmed the emir's changes to the voting system, opposition candidates faced a choice to run again or to continue applying pressure from the outside.

"Half of the liberals said let's do reforms from the inside. The others stayed out of the elections and also stayed quiet," said an activist, who couldn't use her name because she is employed by the government. "I voted in the last election, so let's wait and see." Many of Kuwait's tribes also came back into the system, cajoled by the emir personally.

Amid the divisions, some in the opposition still see a silver lining. "I think the opposition is in the phase of development," said Al Rujabi, of the Progressive Current. "It's a chance to turn from being reactive into setting an action plan for building a better democracy."

Others insist that upcoming court cases will reinvigorate the youth. On December 9, a court is expected to issue a verdict in the case of 68 activists who stormed the parliament in 2011. They face sentences of up to 10 years for assaulting the guards of the National Assembly.

But activists also admit that the opposite could happen after the verdict is issued in that case. Almost all of the youth activists who for years have silently driven the opposition's political agenda are among those facing charges. If they are put in prison now it may cripple the opposition for good. One activist said succinctly, "It would be the end of Kuwait."

Sulaiman Al Jassem, one of those who stormed parliament, cautioned that one-offs -- whether court cases or specific government policies -- won't unify such a diverse coalition for any longer than last time.

"When we started in 2009, we had a goal: to remove the prime minister -- and we did," he said. "All the problems started once we reached our goal and we had nothing left to win anymore."

Elizabeth Dickinson is Gulf correspondent for The National, and former FP assistant managing editor. This article is the first of a series produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution's Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations for the report -- "Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria's Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home." 

 

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Two blasts hit near the Iranian Embassy in Beirut

Two explosions hit near the Iran Embassy in Beirut killing at least 23 and wounding 146 others on Tuesday. The blasts struck about 50 to 100 yards outside the embassy in the predominantly Shiite Bir Hassan neighborhood of the Lebanese capital. One explosion appeared to have been caused by a suicide bomber, while the other seemed to be a car bomb from a vehicle parked two buildings away from the complex. However, some report that one of the explosions could have come from rocket fire. According to the Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, Iran's cultural attaché, Sheikh Ibrahim Ansari, was killed in the explosion. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanese militant group with ties to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack. Lebanon has seen sporadic violence since the start of the Syrian civil war, and southern Beirut was hit with a series of rocket attacks and car bombings this summer. The country has also experienced an influx of over 816,000 refugees, with a new wave of Syrians fleeing a recent government offensive.

Syria

Syrian state media has claimed that government forces have seized the strategic town of Qara near the Lebanese border. The statement has come days after the Syrian army launched an offensive in the mountainous Qalamoun region. Qara is located on a vital supply line between Lebanon and rebel fighters around Damascus and additionally ties government territory along the Mediterranean coast with the capital. If government troops succeed in overtaking the area, the regime would consolidate gains made with the support of Hezbollah fighters in May in Qusair. According to the United Nations, fighting in the area has driven over 12,000 new refugees into the Lebanese town of Arsal in the last four days, the greatest influx into the town at any period over the past two and half years of fighting.

Headlines  

  • Iranian President Rouhani has warned the West not to make "excessive demands" in nuclear negotiations as lawmakers push to continue 20 percent uranium enrichment.
  • The Qatari 2022 World Cup organizing committee said it would improve worker welfare standards after a report by Amnesty International on labor abuses.
  • Minor skirmishes have broken out between pro and anti-military protesters as demonstrations build near Egypt's Tahrir Square on the second anniversary of anti-military council clashes.
  • A Kuwaiti man has been sentenced to five years in prison for insulting the Prophet over Twitter while a man in the UAE has been jailed for two years for his tweets on a political trial. 

Arguments and Analysis

'New Shia Politics and the Maliki-Sadr Competition in Iraq' (Harith Hasan, Atlantic Council - MENA Source)

"The reciprocal criticisms between the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shia rival, Moqtada al-Sadr, reflect the changing dynamics of Shia politics in Iraq. On several occasions, Sadr, the leader of the Iraqi Islamist Sadrist Movement, warned of a possible 'return to dictatorship' in Iraq while denouncing the government's 'exclusionary' policies. Critical of Maliki's recent visit to Washington DC in October, he condemned it as an attempt by the prime minister to seek US support for a third term in office. Maliki's office replied with an unusually defiant statement, reminding Sadr that his militias were largely involved in the sectarian violence during the civil war and accusing him of participating in efforts sponsored by hostile regional powers to unseat Maliki. The statement threatened a harsh reprisal in the future should Sadr not change his behaviour.

Iraqi commentators saw in those public attacks an early initiation of the electoral campaign for the general election due to take place in April 2014. Internal competition over the position of prime minister among the three major Shia forces -- the Maliki-led State of Law coalition, the Sadrist Movement, and the Supreme Islamic Council led by Ammar al-Hakim -- will exert unprecedented influence over the course of the elections. Although Sunni-Shia and Arab-Kurdish divides will keep playing important roles in shaping political alliances, the growing polarization resulting from Maliki's legacy will likely dominate the electoral discourse and post-election trends."

'Egypt: Anchors Away' (Steven Cook, CFR Blog - From the Potomac to the Euphrates)

"If the United States has little capacity to encourage the development of what some believe to be prerequisites for democracy, its ability to shape the calculations of its leaders is also quite limited.  What incentive can Washington offer that will alter the interests and constraints of Egypt's leaders?  It's unlikely that even if the United States had the resources and political will to offer, for example, billions of aid in exchange for democratic change that Major General Abdel Fatah al Sisi would respond positively.  As noted above, under circumstances in which Egyptians believe they are in an existential struggle for the soul of the country, outsiders -- any outsiders -- will have very little influence to compel the leaders to do something they would not otherwise do.  For all the money that the Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis are providing, they are merely helping to enable what the Egyptian armed forces would have done anyway.

There may be other examples, but I can only think of one instance in which an outside power had a decisive influence on the direction of politics in a country: the EU and Turkey.  The prospect of membership in the European Union altered the incentives of Turkish Islamists and placed constraints on Turkey's senior military officers in ways that made the wide-ranging democratic reforms (which have turned out to be reversible) of 2003-2004 possible.  The Turkish relationship with the EU is unique, however.  As long as there seemed to be a credible chance for Turks to become members of Europe, Brussels had a dynamic effect on Turkish politics. The United States, in contrast, is not going to offer Egypt membership in its own exclusive club."

'Israel's policy of erasure' (Saree Makdisi, Los Angeles Times)

"The expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories is part of Israel's project to gradually suffocate the Palestinians. But it's only one indicator, and a misleading one at that. Because even if no new settlements are built, Palestinian homes will still be bulldozed and Palestinian olive orchards will still be uprooted; Palestinian water wells will run dry and Palestinian fields will brown and crack for lack of irrigation (Israel denies Palestinians access to water from the Jordan River and makes it almost impossible for them to dig new wells, even as it uses, according to a World Bank estimate, more than 80% of the West Bank's groundwater).

Palestinians will still be held up at Israeli army checkpoints and harassed or arrested by Israeli soldiers; they will still be prevented from tending their crops or getting to their schools and clinics, or even to the ruins of their bulldozed homes.

Finding a path to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, such that both peoples truly live side by side rather than one living at the expense of the other, requires not simply dealing with the settlements but with the whole complex of displacement, suffocation and erasure. And the first step is noticing its very existence."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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