Kuwait experiencing growing pains as democracy develops


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: kdowns@the­blade.com