Kuwait: a complex set of tensions needs to be addressed

By Mona Sukkarieh.

Kuwaiti MPs endorsed on 17/05 a legal amendment that could make insulting God and Prophet Mohammad by Muslims punishable by death. The draft, which was backed by 40 MPs, still needs to be approved by the Emir before it becomes law. On the same day, the Emir blocked a parliament proposal by 31 of the parliament’s 50 elected members to amend the Constitution and make all legislation in the country comply with the Sharia. Both events give a clear indication of where society and its representatives in the parliament intend to direct reforms.

Kuwait, although socially conservative, has always enjoyed a relatively liberal political system compared to its counterparts in the Arab Gulf, with regular elections, a very active parliament and a solid, tolerated opposition. In 2005, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to give women the right to vote and stand in elections. Four years later, four women were elected to parliament in what was hoped to be a step towards a more active participation in political life. But in just three years, optimism gave way to disillusionment: although women voters outnumber male voters, not a single woman was elected in 2012 and many, now, fear that whatever gains have been made in the past few years might be blocked or even canceled.

The massive victory the opposition secured in February’s parliamentary elections – the fourth such elections in six years – seems, at this point, far from favoring stability in the country. The Islamist-led opposition, which now control 34 out of 50 seats in Parliament, rode on a wave of social discontent fueled by elite corruption and political deadlock and, as elsewhere in the Arab world, benefited from the widespread perception that they belong to a more clean and honest political class.

Although the political crisis in Kuwait predates and is unrelated to the recent uprisings in the Arab world, regional developments have heightened popular discontent and increased social divisions. The composition of the new parliament is, as expected, diverging attention to religious issues instead of focusing on democratic reform. Parliamentary debates and the political discourse in general, in and outside the Parliament, are creating friction within Kuwaiti society: Women are increasingly alienated. A number of MPs, for example, are pushing for an amendment that, if adopted, would bar women from becoming judges. Shiites feel targeted by certain laws (the blasphemy law was amended following a suspected case of blasphemy on Twitter by a Kuwaiti Shiite) and certain measures (focusing on making Sharia the sole source of legislation instead of a source of legislation as it is today, which would require the Shiite population to conform to Sunni interpretation of Islamic law). Kuwait’s support for the Bahraini regime which is fiercely cracking down on mainly Shiite opposition protestors also contributed to the sharp rise in sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shiites.

Constitutional reform that would ultimately turn Kuwait into a constitutional monarchy by limiting the powers of the ruling family and strengthening the parliament has been a constant demand of the opposition in the past few years. The opposition can now also rely on the support of tribal MPs who control 20 seats at the parliament. Tribal representatives who, in the past, constituted a major support base for the ruling family, have seen their relations with the government deteriorate after a series of measures that they consider provocative were adopted. Among these a ban on tribal primaries ahead of parliamentary elections.

Tension in Kuwait is running high on several levels: (1) among the political class, between the opposition and the ruling family, represented by the government. Usually confined to the Parliament, it can also spill out on the streets as it did on November 2011. Rivalries within the ruling family constitute another layer of tension and should not be ignored; (2) between the political class in all its forms and certain factions of society (the ruling family VS tribal representatives; parliamentary majority VS religious minorities, women etc.).

This might not pose a direct threat to the ruling family, but frustration resulting from the slow-pace of reforms, the failure of the political class to address socio-economic problems and to tackle the issue of corruption will crystallize tension in all its forms and contribute to the political deadlock. The next round of elections might come sooner than planned.

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