Egypt and Syria are absorbing attention in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Gulf, but not so much that the treatment of domestic dissidents has slipped off the agenda. When it comes to civil liberties, Kuwait was an outlier among its Gulf peers. Its constitution enumerates a list of citizen rights and liberties, while its elected parliament, unlike other “representative” bodies in the region, actually has some legislative power. Civil liberties protections depend on both. When the parliament was illegally suspended from 1976 to 1981 and again from 1986 to 1992, civil liberties disappeared as well. Freedom of speech and press, the right to assemble peacefully in public, and other constitutionally enshrined rights no longer were available to citizens, although they were mostly reinstated each time the parliament was restored.
In part one of this article, I trace the parallel erosion of citizens’ rights and parliamentary authority as Kuwaiti rulers have used constitutional and legal mechanisms and, when those failed, direct repression to counter citizens’ attempts to limit authoritarian rule. Over the past several years, civil liberties and rights have disappeared in practice despite the continuance of parliamentary elections. The frequent “unscheduled” elections are an example of “rule by law,” that is, the use of laws and outward forms of constitutionality to justify narrowing civil rights and liberties. This is most easily accomplished in a parliament heavy with neophyte members, a normal result of elections in Kuwait where, since 1981, turnover generally ran to a quarter of the body and occasionally even exceeded it. The frequency of dismissals of recent parliaments and the subsequent election of new ones hide the erosion of constitutional protections for the parliament itself, as well as for citizens. As a result of these and other factors, the institutional balance of power in Kuwait today favors the regime more than it did when the constitution was first adopted in 1962. The rights of citizens to question the regime are constrained and, increasingly, their constitutional rights are violated.
The constitution authorizes parliament to participate in the legislative process whereby both the parliament and the amir must approve a law for it to be passed, although the amir has the upper hand when parliament is not in session. More frustrating for Kuwait’s rulers, however, has been the parliament’s authority to hold Cabinet members accountable for their actions through interpellation—or questioning on the floor of the National Assembly—which can be followed by votes of confidence. Parliamentary authority has been eroded significantly during the reign of the current amir, Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, even though he has not imposed the long-term, unconstitutional suspensions that Shaykhs Sabah al-Salim and Jabir al-Ahmad did. Like them, however, he has dismissed parliaments when they threatened to rein in executive power.
When the constitution is operating normally, Kuwaiti parliaments sit for four years. But from 2006 until today, five parliaments have been dismissed early, either by the amir or the Constitutional Court, and six “snap” elections have been held to replace them. The first occurred only a few months after Shaykh Sabah’s accession. Ironically, it was prompted by a popular movement to change the election law. A small group of young Kuwaitis initiated this development in the spring of 2006 when they began to demonstrate in favor of changing the electoral system that had operated since 1981. They wanted to reduce the number of election districts from twenty-five to five in order to make it more complicated and expensive to manipulate election results by vote-buying and financing candidates likely to draw votes from contenders that the regime disliked.
Some Kuwaiti liberals had supported electoral law reform for a number of years, but the project did not have widespread appeal. Consequently, when the initially tiny “Orange” demonstrations erupted into a popular movement, both Kuwaiti citizens and government officials were surprised. A majority of the elected members of parliament (cabinet members participate ex officio) also hopped on the train to electoral reform. Yet it was when they threatened to interpellate the prime minister—that is, to subject him to formal questioning about his role on a specific issue, such as the actions taken against demonstrators at the parliament building—that the amir dissolved the National Assembly and called for new elections.
Among the victors were thirty-five candidates from across Kuwait’s social, religious, and political spectrum, all of whom had been endorsed and assisted by the five-district movement in return for pledges to fight corruption, including electoral corruption, if they were elected. The first major accomplishment of the 2006 parliament was to pass a five-districts law that, in addition to creating five districts, increased the number of choices each voter could make from two to four. Along with the much larger districts, this element of the new law made vote buying a far less effective strategy for orchestrating the election of regime-friendly MPs.
The regime attempted to overcome these impediments by dissolving parliaments when they became unbearable and holding new elections. This quickly became the main way to discipline parliaments that insisted on exercising their constitutionally mandated authority. Despite candidates’ promises to curb corruption, however, corruption persisted. So too did parliamentary attempts, some successful, to interpellate cabinet ministers and eventually, despite fierce resistance, to interpellate the prime minister himself. By Shaykh Sabah’s third snap election in 2009, the legitimacy of elections as such was tarnished through overuse and under-performance. Several respected incumbents refused to run and many voters refused to go to the polls. According to state figures, turnout in 2009 was just below sixty percent, a significant drop from the average of around eighty percent that had been standard from 1981 to 2006.
The 2009 election sent the first women to the National Assembly. Media concentration on the novelty of female parliamentarians helped to deflect popular attention from the continued struggle between Kuwait’s executive and legislative branches. The opposition was not distracted for long, however. Outrage over ubiquitous and blatant corruption finally forced the ruler to permit the prime minister to be questioned, but only in a closed session. The “grilling,” which focused on allegations of bribery, took place in December 2009. Before the interpellation, the ruling family exacted promises from a majority of elected MPs to support the prime minister. All four women joined their acquiescing colleagues in a tacit exchange for the precedent of being able to question a prime minister at all.
The clash between the regime and parliamentary reformers reached a peak in 2011-2012. Newspaper reports documenting large cash payments that appeared to be going from the Kuwaiti prime minister to about fifteen members of parliament served as the Wikileaks of the controversy. As in Tunisia—where citizens suspected that the regime was engaged in corruption, such as using public money for the private purposes of regime leaders and cronies, and it was not until documents that Wikileaks distributed finally provided hard evidence supporting this suspicion—Kuwaitis “knew” that the regime was paying for parliamentary support but had no evidence to support their suspicions. For example, it was widely rumored, and not denied, that the women’s rights law finally passed in May 2005 for precisely that reason, but there was no concrete evidence that payments had been made and no way to be sure which among the individual legislators had gotten them. The 2011 news reports and investigations by the public prosecutor altered that situation and added to the intensity of street demonstrations against the prime minister. A march on the parliament in mid-November 2011 in which opposition MPs participated along with hundreds of mostly young people, including many from the tribes, forced the resignation of the prime minister and the calling of the first of two elections in 2012.
Both the regime and its opponents were convinced that the five-districts, four-votes system had been effective in changing the complexion of the parliament. Exactly how and why this had occurred however, was not clear. The expense of interfering in elections surely increased, but what increased even more was the difficulty in devising a strategy that would produce a specific desired result. The amir’s repeated dismissals of parliaments did not solve the problem. Instead of getting parliaments that came closer to his ideal, he found himself with parliament after parliament that neither responded to his demands nor resembled its predecessor—thanks to turnover, the changing preferences of voters, and the character of the conflicts precipitating each dismissal. Indeed, the last parliament elected under the five-districts, four-votes system produced a body dominated by hardline regime opponents, including large numbers of Islamist and tribal representatives.
The amir was dissatisfied with this trade-off. His continued rage was reflected in an April 2010 interview with Der Spiegel, when he expanded his attacks on the parliament to include the constitution itself. Opposition members and supporters began to meet to work out strategies for increasing the ruler’s accountability and the regime fought back. State security forces were sent in December 2010 to attack a professor of law and several Members of Parliament at the home of another member, Jamman al-Harbash, who had gathered in his family’s reception area [diwaniyya]. Attendees were struck with wooden batons and there were reports that the officer who beat the professor had come with a photograph of his target.
This shocking violence against citizens engaged in peaceful assembly in an arguably private venue—technically, because so many people came that not all could be accommodated in the house itself, it could be construed as a public gathering—was not unprecedented. It had occurred multiple times during the pro-democracy movement in the late 1980s that sought to have the parliament restored during the second long suspension. Then, “Monday diwaniyyas” took place at the homes of members of a rump faction of the parliament that had continued to meet after the body was suspended. Despite restrictions on public gatherings that were tightened in 1979 during the first parliamentary suspension, these meetings were presumed to be safe from government intrusion because of their location in this protected space. As they attracted more and more people, however, police used the excuse of spillover crowds to breach the privacy norm that protected citizens’ homes. The gathering that formed on 22 January 1990 at the final Monday diwaniyya was met with a show of force that recalled the pre-constitutional parliamentary movement of 1938-1939. Just as this earlier period of mobilization had ended in a violent clash, where one person was killed and another was executed, arriving guests and reporters found National Guard units, riot police, and tanks using chemical foam, tear gas, and stun grenades. When the beleaguered attendees took refuge in a local mosque, the foam and tear gas followed them, and many were beaten and arrested.
The public application of state violence to this degree caused both sides to step back and engage in informal negotiations at diwaniyyas during Ramadan. Several opposition leaders were arrested and detained for short periods, but Kuwaitis still expected that the amir would respond to popular demands and call new elections after Ramadan. Indeed, the amir did call for new elections, but to an extra-constitutional “national council” [al-majlis al-watani] that would only have advisory power. Opposition members I spoke to at the time feared that if such a body were elected with their consent, it would become the de facto “parliament” and condemn the constitutionally mandated majlis al-umma, along with citizens’ rights and liberties, to oblivion. Few of them ran, leaving the field to pro-government incumbents and neophytes. Voter turnout was low, but the new body convened as scheduled and behaved as predicted: “parliamentary” challenges to the regime ended.
The Iraqi invasion interrupted this expansion of autocracy, but when parliamentary life was restored after the 1990 Gulf War, the elected parliaments, despite their social conservatism, continued to assert their legislative authority. They refused to ratify without amendment an amiri decree issued during the suspension that set up a special court to try government ministers charged with crimes. They also continued to demand that the actions of the regime prior to the invasion be accounted for. The MPs also continued to interpellate ministers and fought government corruption by viewing a range of “development” projects with suspicion, refusing to approve a number of them. They took a stand on human rights by ratifying international treaties and establishing a human rights standing committee in the parliament focused on citizens’ rights. When the government announced the closure of unlicensed NGOs, including some that had been organized by Kuwaitis to deal with otherwise neglected prisoner-of-war issues, the “illegal” groups continued to work and were not impeded.
The regime had seen itself as beset by pro-liberalization urbanites. The involvement of tribal elements in the opposition, however, not only on the streets during the pro-democracy movement but also in the parliament, demonstrated the flaws in its long-standing strategy of naturalizing non-national tribal populations to boost its electoral chances. In an attempt to limit the power of the large tribes, a parliamentary majority was mobilized in 1998 to outlaw “tribal primaries.” The tribal primary—an adaptation of tribal decision-making practices—was formalized in 1976 to improve the chances of tribe members winning a general election by guiding the clan’s votes toward one or two candidates. This 1998 law was not enforced for ten years but, like other repressive and arguably unconstitutional laws—such as three passed over the objections of parliamentary liberals on 24 December 1965, one of which restricted the size of a group permitted to assemble in public without a permit—it remained in the regime’s arsenal for future use.
If we fast-forward to the confrontations between Shaykh Sabah and his parliaments, we can see persistent elements of these former clashes, along with new forms of repression. They appear in the combination of citizen activism and parliamentary support for movements to crack the shell that protects executive authoritarianism. They are also evident in the willingness of the regime to apply physical force, arrests, and detention to large numbers of average citizens to crush those initiatives. In the spring of 2011, the regime doubled down on measures to restrict speech and the press and to punish anyone foolhardy enough to question its absolute right to rule. This chapter started with the December 2010 diwaniyya discussed above which rang alarm bells, not only because the organizing impetus came from the tribes but also because its declared purpose was to develop a strategy to prevent the amir from changing the election law.
[Click here for Part Two: Ghost Parliaments and the "Abyss of Autocracy"]