[Click here for Part One: The Limits of Electoral Democracy]
The first part of this article examined the parallel constriction of citizens’ rights and parliamentary authority in the decades leading up to the 2011 confrontation between Kuwait’s rulers and its citizens and their representatives. While coinciding with and overshadowed by the media’s concentration on the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, this struggle emerged from a historically particular set of conditions in Kuwait that continue to unfold. The concluding part of this article documents this current stage of political contestation and maps out its long-term consequences.
Demonstrations against the prime minister and other cabinet ministers continued throughout 2011, boosted by the example of the Arab uprisings whose beginning coincided with Jamman al-Harbash’s diwaniyya. Members of Parliament, representatives from professional societies, and at first hundreds and then thousands of ordinary Kuwaitis poured into the streets throughout 2011. Their complaints gradually shifted from calls to curb corruption and dismiss the prime minister to demands that the Kuwaiti regime demonstrate its right to be called a “constitutional monarchy,” one subscribing to the rule of law. Street protests took place all year. A brief uprising by Kuwaiti bedoon—stateless persons whose marginal status makes them an economically disadvantaged as well as a rights-less population—was quickly suppressed, but by the fall, citizen workers were adding their voices in strikes against factories, banks, the customs service, and the national airline. This phase culminated in the November march on the National Assembly building that led to the decision of the amir to appoint a new prime minister and, days later, to close the parliament and call for new elections.
The February 2012 (2012F) election reflected the difficulty of getting anyone’s ideal parliament out of the five-districts, four-votes system. It produced a parliament dominated by the most vocal, radical, and intransigent tribal and religious opponents of the regime who interpreted their victory as a positive popular endorsement of the victorious candidates rather than a broad rejection of the regime’s corruption and poor governance. The 2012F parliament believed it had been empowered by the voters to carry out the promises members had campaigned on. Sunni Islamist promises to move Kuwaiti law closer to their ideas of sharia would, if they had become law, redistribute rights between men and women, and between Sunni Islamists and others. A similar redistribution of rights had occurred in 1983, when Islamists in the 1981 parliament made importing, producing, selling, and consuming alcohol illegal for everyone regardless of their religion or nationality. Islamists’ goals and their persistence in trying to achieve them had helped the regime for decades by driving wedges between the Islamist and non-Islamist opposition, and by focusing attention on religious conflicts, thereby deflecting it from political ones. In the 2012F parliament, Islamists sought to reduce the autonomy and status of women by imposing restrictions on their movements and dress. Members of Parliament also sought to decrease religious freedom for all by imposing the death penalty in some cases of blasphemy, an initiative that the amir rejected. As a result of this parliamentary overreaching, urban women especially saw the opposition as threatening civil rights as well as civil peace. More alarming to the regime, however, the 2012F parliament sought to legalize political parties and amend the constitution to give the parliament more power, such as the right to choose—and dismiss—the prime minister. Few Kuwaitis were even aware that these initiatives were being pursued.
In June, mere days after the amir announced an unprecedented but constitutional one-month suspension of the 2012F parliament, the Constitutional Court ruled that the authorization of its election had been procedurally flawed. The court declared the 2012F parliament to be not just illegal but null and void, thus erasing it from the history of Kuwaiti parliaments. Its members were denied their status as “former MPs” and the legislatively unproductive 2009 parliament was reinstated as though it had never gone away. The 2009 parliament refused to meet, but the ghostly coexistence of two dubiously legitimate parliaments divided the opposition over how to proceed. New elections were the logical solution, but fears that the amir would intervene unilaterally to change the 2006 election law intensified.
The speaker of the 2009 parliament suggested that the Constitutional Court be asked to review the five-districts law. The new cabinet, nominated and sworn in despite the lack of a functioning parliament, agreed to this plan in early August 2012. The decision came in late September, when the court declared the electoral law to be constitutional, clearing the way for new elections based on the five districts. The opposition thought that it had won, but the amir had another card up his sleeve.
On 3 October, the amir officially dismissed the 2009 parliament, starting the clock on the sixty-day maximum period during which the constitution requires new elections to be held. Intense concerns that the electoral law would be changed before the election did not produce a united front among members of the dismissed parliament. Because the Constitutional Court had approved the five districts, attention was focused on the number of candidates each voter should be able to choose. Pro-government forces favored reducing the number from four perhaps all the way to one. Anti-government MPs insisted that the old law should prevail and announced that if the amir changed it, they would boycott the election.
The opposition planned a series of rallies to push for retention of the four-votes rule. The demonstrations were heterogeneous, drawing Kuwaitis from all classes and regions of the country. The crackdown was rapid and harsh. Even small gatherings at Irada Square—a venue that the Orange movement and others had used with government permission—were policed, sometimes violently. One young man who was arrested and accused of being a “Zionist agent” said that he was giving instructions on civil disobedience methods when he was taken by the police and severely beaten. A large gathering at Irada on 15 October was the occasion for the most memorable speech of the crisis, a challenge by former MP Musallem al-Barrak: “We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy…We no longer fear your prisons and your riot batons.” Although news of this public violation of the constitutional proscription on criticizing the amir was barely noted outside Kuwait, its audacity shook local observers in and outside of the government. Musallem al-Barrak was arrested and convicted for insulting the amir, and received a five-year prison sentence, currently under appeal.
Four days after al-Barrak’s speech, the amir took up the challenge and abruptly changed the 2006 election law to restrict Kuwaitis to one vote each in the coming election. Thereafter, the danger of taking to the streets to protest the actions of the government rose sharply. Only two days after the amir changed the electoral law, security forces attacked thousands of unarmed Kuwaitis who had gathered to rally against it. The demonstrators came with family and friends to exercise what they saw as their constitutional rights. They were not prepared for what happened:
We were by the towers, where they used gas and other weapons. Still, before the march, my brothers were at the end [but]…special forces stopped it before we started, [with] bombs, gas and sound, arrests, beating with batons. Our phones did not work. I found out at the end they took my brothers, actually they were taken at the beginning. There were four [friends, including one] who was reporting for al-Qabas. They were accused of planning an illegal protest, throwing rocks and bottles of water at the police, insulting the amir—the whole package of accusations…The four were called for questioning [on new year’s eve]…and were to be released on bail but the[y] refused to pay and stayed in jail until January 2 when they were released without paying.
Women also were arrested and a few roughed up, sometimes by pro-regime thugs. One, who was in the process of forming an NGO to record information on the arrests of demonstrators, was monitoring a gathering in Keifan to discuss the election boycott. Here she describes the polarization of citizens and the targeting of anti-regime demonstrators by the security forces:
At the gathering, there were two sides, the Orange (for the boycott) and the Blue (against it). The Blue were not touched. The security forces chased the Orange. I was taking their names. A policeman hit us and tried to take my phone. It was cool and I was wearing a scarf. A guy watching took my scarf and took my picture. I wanted to take a picture of him. He hit me and he broke my phone. The police saw it but they let him get away. I still do not know who he is.
An attack by security forces on the home of Musallem al-Barrak featured assaults on the security of a private household, which included breaking into the house without a warrant and dragging a maid who was taking a shower outside without any clothing. Many arrests during this period were for insulting the amir on social media. Sara al-Derees was the only woman convicted among scores arrested for the content of their tweets. She was due to report for a twenty-month prison sentence when the amir issued a pardon for eleven convicted tweeters, including Sara, after the 2013 election. Sara said that she had not been physically abused during her arrest and detention, but many male arrestees described how they were. One veteran dissident recounted what was a common experience:
I was arrested three times. The first was for breaking into the parliament in November 2011. The second was a Twitter case, for insulting the amir. The third was because of the second demonstration, on 4 November. After the first arrest I was detained for four days and then imprisoned for five days. During detention they did not beat me but called me names, spilled water on the floor to prevent us from sitting down or sleeping, cut off the water to the toilets, and woke us up to do searches in the middle of the night. After the second arrest, about tweets, I was held by State Security in solitary confinement for six days. Even though I have been released, my case is continued, to intimidate me.
The third arrest also was by State Security…There were four of us and we were hemmed in by State Security cars. The men came out of the cars and asked for our civil IDs. Then they blindfolded us and shoved us into the cars, one into each car so we were separated. We were beaten in the cars driving to the State Security complex. When we went in we were still blindfolded. Our phones were taken. They asked for our passwords but we refused. We were taken to four separate rooms and beaten up for thirty to forty-five minutes to get the passwords. This beating was especially severe. They looked for [vulnerable] places to hit, such as injuries, and we were kicked in the face.
Some men were released but punished economically. A young man from the outlying areas, where some citizens are only tenuously members of Kuwait’s middle class, speaks of the economic vulnerability of individuals without independent sources of income:
In November, I was arrested and beaten, but the charges were dropped. I was discharged from the military as a result. Even though the charges were dropped, I cannot rejoin and I get no compensation. They came up with new charges and say they are doing an investigation and can take [me] to court. I was arrested by the military police and] I was tortured for five days…After I was tortured by the military police I was turned over to the regular police who refused to admit me to a hospital. I was put in solitary confinement and they brought a doctor to me personally, to keep my condition quiet. The regular police got me from intelligence but did not examine my condition. When the police saw me they were shocked and did not want to take me to the police hospital in case they would be blamed.
The assault on demonstrators was no secret. Countless videos of gassing and beatings were posted on YouTube and those mistreated, along with their friends, were not silent. Despite the bravery of newspaper editors in exposing the bribery of members of the 2009 parliament, however, news coverage of opposition demonstrations was much less sympathetic and far from neutral. The demonstrators were generally referred to as “rioters,” the preferred term of the regime. Beatings of unarmed activists went unremarked. Most published photos of marches were taken close up, obscuring the extent of popular dissent and the heterogeneity of the protesters. The boycott was thinly covered although those who opposed it were quoted at length. The arrest and detention of the reporter from al-Qabas noted above, may have been a shot across the bow.
Smaller demonstrations continued after the 1 December parliamentary election (2012D). Although these demonstrations were barely covered by the press, control of the media was high on the agenda of the regime. In the spring of 2013, the government introduced a “unified media law” in parliament. Its name was chosen to reflect its application not only to newspapers, books, magazines, and newspapers but also to electronic media, including blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Had this law been adopted, Tweeters would have been liable for enormous fines—up to a million dollars—for criticizing the amir or the crown prince, whether what they might have said was true or not, and even for quoting them without their permission. Another provision made it a crime to divulge information from secret documents or meetings. The latter had been a strategy of the Orange movement, which had published reports about government meetings and diwaniyyas. Despite the 2012D parliament being chosen under the amir’s one-vote system and including many inexperienced members, however, the media bill was withdrawn without being put to a vote, no doubt a response to the outcry over the proposed law when details about it were published in several newspapers.
The 2012D parliament did promptly ratify the amir’s amendment of the electoral law, but like other parliaments, it soon proved to be flawed in the usual ways from the regime’s perspective. Members chafed under a moratorium on interpellation worked out between the speaker and the government and soon returned to a semblance of business as usual by filing intentions to question ministers. But the status of 2012D was never secure because Kuwaiti attorney Adel Abdul Hadi successfully appealed the amiri decree that changed the electoral law, and the parliament’s legality had to await an opinion from the Constitutional Court. On 16 June 2013, the 2012D parliament, like its predecessor, was declared null and void. According to the attorney who brought the appeal, the technicality that formed the basis of the decision left a loophole that could be used to dissolve the next parliament, which was elected in July 2013.
Unlike the two parliaments elected in 2012, the July 2013 Ramadan election produced a noticeably less recalcitrant parliament. Except for the absence of prominent religious and tribal opposition figures from the few segments of the opposition that continued their boycott, it reflects most of the social forces in Kuwait. Led by the scion of a major merchant family, the parliament started off by meeting the new government halfway, with both sides pledging to focus on development and building a brighter future for Kuwait. After Ramadan, the amir pardoned the eleven convicted tweeters, including Sara Derees, earning encomiums from citizens. But others accused of speech and press violations, street demonstrators, and members of parliament, including Musallem al-Barrak, remain in limbo. About sixty people are awaiting trial for reciting Musallem al-Barrak’s 15 October challenge to the amir at the 30 November Dignity March. Even more vulnerable are those who have been fired from their jobs and denied access to state services, like travel abroad for health reasons, as a punitive measure. Such persons are essentially invisible to fellow citizens and to human rights organizations. Charges against any person who has been neither acquitted nor pardoned can always be revived, a constant warning to the accused to avoid behavior displeasing to the regime. Meanwhile, a string of appeals by defendants accused of insulting the amir have been denied, while three of the four friends whose arrest was noted by the sister of two of them will be tried for illegal demonstration charges later this month. The fourth friend, from the tribes, has been imprisoned since the four were arrested.
Although abuses of citizen activists in Kuwait have occurred in the past, the duration and extent of this round of repression is both unusually nasty and far from concluded. The persistence of boycotters, who are not confined to Islamist and tribal groupings, reflects the profound disenchantment of some of the most able members of the rising generation with conditions in their country. The success of repeated assaults by the regime on the Kuwaiti parliament is equally disturbing. The Constitutional Court gave Kuwaitis a license to erase the parliaments of 2012 and the circumstances that produced them from their minds and their history books. And yet the short lives of these parliaments constitute the clearest pictures of the slow evisceration of parliamentary capacity and legitimacy. The effects of this evisceration are real, and all the governing institutions of Kuwait, including the parliament itself, bear responsibility for those effects. Ironically, the ability of the 2013 parliament to repair the damage inflicted by years of posturing and intransigence by all sides in Kuwait’s contentious political elite is limited by the destruction of parliamentary authority. Whatever successes it has will depend on support from newly vulnerable citizen activists that the parliament should strive to protect in its own interests as well as in theirs.