KUWAIT CITY — Thousands of people gathered here last week to protest changes in voting laws in advance of next month’s parliamentary elections. They were met by hundreds of riot police who fired smoke bombs, stun grenades, and tear gas to break up the rally.
Another rally was held this past weekend, which also marked the 50th anniversary of Kuwait’s constitution. These were the latest in a series of confrontations between Kuwaiti opposition forces and the government in recent weeks.
The violence prompted some news agencies to wonder whether the first winds of an Arab Spring had begun to stir this desert nation. But Kuwait is not Egypt or Libya, where people grew restive under autocratic rule. Nor is Kuwait similar to Bahrain, where tensions between the Shiite-majority population and Sunni-led government have boiled over.
Unlike some of its Middle Eastern and North African neighbors, Kuwait has a long democratic tradition, said Abd al-Rahman Alyan, editor-in-chief of the Kuwait Times, the oldest daily and first English-language newspaper in the Persian Gulf region.
Democratically, he told me, “we’re in the forefront of the Middle East, and I think our press is freer even than Israel, which is [said] to be the most democratic country. We have no political prisoners. We have no fear of the police.”
The current unrest, Mr. Alyan said, is part of the growing process.
“Most democracies, including the United States, went through a period of bloodshed that was part of the learning experience,” he said. “But they got to a point where they said: ‘Let’s have a mutual understanding and work on something,’ and I think that’s the case all over the world.
“Kuwait, in comparison to the rest of the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East,” he said, “has had slightly more time to adapt to this sort of system. But it is still in somewhat of an early stage.”
Kuwaitis are upset by the lack of recent development in the oil-rich nation. Mr. Alyan blames that lack on ineffective parliaments whose members are more interested in wasta (accumulating influence and distributing favors) than they are in governing.
“The problem that Kuwait is facing is that its democratic and political process is not working,” he said. “Parliament is not functioning in the way it is supposed to. I think there’s a lack of understanding of what a democracy means.”
Mr. Alyan said that opposition groups, especially tribal groups and Islamists, chose in recent years to work outside the parliamentary system when they don’t get what they want.
Opposition protests led to the dissolution of parliament in December, 2011. A new parliament with a majority opposition was elected in February. The country’s Constitutional Court invalidated that election earlier this year and restored the previous parliament.
New elections are scheduled for Dec. 1, but many in the opposition have vowed to boycott them because Kuwait’s leader, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, changed the voting law to give each eligible voter just one vote.
Kuwait is divided into five election districts. Each district elects 10 members of parliament. Previously, each voter could vote for up to four candidates, which led to vote trading (more wasta), Mr. Alyan said. One-person, one-vote, he said, will force candidates to run on their own merits.
There are tensions in Kuwait, Mr. Alyan said: Tribals and Islamists who are more conservative than urbanites; what to do about stateless people called Bedoun; jealousy of Indians and other foreigners who run businesses here, and centuries-old grievances between Shiites and Sunnis.
Mr. Alyan said that people have to start to think of themselves as Kuwaitis first, then as members of a tribe or religious sect.
“When I look at England, the system works because I don’t think there’s an English person who cares what his uncle wants,” he said. “That’s what the Emir is hoping that the one vote will achieve. That more unexpected people will get to parliament.”
Pressure will be on the new government to get development started again.
“I think the Emir’s vision was that the prime minister and the government and the parliament and the people can do that,” Mr. Alyan said. “He feels like the next parliament is going to be a parliament that represents the Kuwaiti people in the right way.
“Now is the chance for that parliament and that government to really start to achieve,” Mr. Alyan said. “If they do that on economic and social areas, I think the opposition will start to lose favor.”
Kendall F. Downs is a former associate editor of The Blade who lives and works in Kuwait.
Contact him at: email@example.com