1The political regime of Kuwait, based on political participation through an elected parliament with legislative powers, stands as an exception to other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As shown by Michael Herb,1 this exception is the result of two converging factors upon independence in 1961: the presence of a liberal ruler committed to political participation and a serious exogenous threat, in the form of irredentist claims by neighbouring Iraq.
- 2 Al‑Najjār, 2000.
- 3 Crystal, 1990.
- 4 Dazi‑Heni, 1996.
- 5 Tetreault, 2000; Al‑Shayejī 1998.
2Several works have undertaken to analyse the specificities of Kuwait’s political regime based on different perspectives. Historical works have shown the ways in which political participation has taken roots in the emirate,2 but also how the founding power‑sharing agreement between the Al Ṣabāḥ dynasty and the Sunni merchant elites was then limited following the discovery and commercialization of oil.3 Others have chosen to insist on the persistence of a democratic political culture despite the reinforcement of the ruling dynasty’s power, focusing on the role of such local institutions as the dīwāniyya4, or on the role of various trends of pro‑democracy activism.5
3In line with works analysing the functioning of Kuwait’s political regime, this article intends to examine how the “Arab Spring” which, in a context of growing discontent and the emergence of new types of political actors, contributed to reshape the political coalitions that used to be at the forefront of the fight against the government.6 The article will also analyse how the regional context, marked by an ever more security oriented approach within the Gulf Cooperation Council, is having a direct impact on the curtailment of civil liberties and the resurgence of authoritarianism, and actually putting Kuwaiti “exceptionalism” at stake.
4More than two decades after the traumatic Iraqi invasion, the regime’s old guard is still in control of the state. The Emir (85) and the Crown prince (78) lack the will to embrace a new development vision and to correct the loss of trust between society and the ruling family. Criticism of this old generation for its incapacity to restore political stability comes from within the ruling family itself.
5Since the campaign for the 2003 parliamentary elections, national ballots in Kuwait have become a public battlefield for the ruling family’s internal conflicts over succession. The two main branches of the Al Ṣabāḥ ruling family, the al‑Jābir and al‑Sālim, were initially the main contenders. But since 2006, factionalism has spread following other claims to the throne made by other descendants of Mubārak the Great, by far the most prominent of the Kuwaiti emirs who signed the Exclusive Agreement with the British in 1899 and imposed a more authoritarian and personalized form of rule. His sons are the eponymous ancestors of seven dynastic factions.
- 7 This information comes from one of the numerous interviews conducted during my frequent fieldwork i (...)
6In 2003 also, a “movement” emerged emanating from the dynasty’s relatively younger princes and led by the oldest son of the present Emir, Nāṣir Ṣabāḥ al‑Aḥmad. The latter wrote a petition together with younger princes, calling for the injection of new blood in the dynastic institution.7 This effort however was met with scepticism by the older princes, who perceived it as a threat to the already poor cohesiveness of the ruling family. Moreover, it was met with deep suspicion by the neighbouring Saudi monarchy, which also suffers from a long‑lasting gerontocracy syndrome, and which sees any appeal for generational change as a threat to its own internal stability.
- 8 Interview with Ghānim al‑Najjār, May 2014; and Al‑Najjār, 2014.
- 9 Tetreault, 2006.
7In 2006, the established practice of nominating the Emir and his crown prince within the ruling family’s inner circles was put in question8 when succession issues were somehow transferred to the Parliament. Thanks to the help of the speaker of the National assembly, Jāsim al‑Khurāfī,9 the Parliament voted to remove Emir Sa‘d al‑Sālim Al Ṣabāḥ, whose illness had reached the point where it prevented him from ruling the country, and instead elected Ṣabāḥ al‑Aḥmad al‑Jābir Al Ṣabāḥ. The latter was from the al‑Jābir dynastic faction. After his designation as emir, he appointed his brother Nawwāf al‑Aḥmad as Crown Prince, hence marginalizing the al‑Sālim branch to which Emir Sa‘d belonged.
- 10 Aḥmad Fahd al‑Jābir al‑Aḥmad was Minister of Oil and Energy from February 2006 to March 2008, and M (...)
8While the struggle over succession inside the ruling family manifested itself in the wider political arena during the 2003 elections, it is only after 2006 that it engendered an all‑encompassing political crisis, with the appointment of Nāṣir Muḥammad al‑Jābir al‑Aḥmad Al Ṣabāḥ as Prime Minister. This decision brought about an increasingly bitter struggle for power within the second generation of princes, i.e. the nephews or sons of the eldest generation. Nāṣir al‑Muḥammad (born in 1940, the oldest of the second generation princes) and his cousin Aḥmad al‑Fahd (born in 1963) are the two main protagonists of this fight, each heading rival factions.10 Both are from the al‑Jābir faction, even from the same sub‑branch, the al‑Aḥmad, to which the Emir himself belongs. So far, the Emir has proven unable to choose between his two nephews who are equally close to him.
9The young Aḥmad al‑Fahd has tried repeatedly to convince the Emir to proceed to a generational jump in order to foster a new leadership dynamic. His positioning as a reformer aims first and foremost at eliminating his enemies. These are mainly Nāṣir Muḥammad and the Vice‑Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Jābir al‑Mubārak, who ranks number three in the succession race.
- 11 Muḥammad al‑Sālim resigned from his ministerial portfolio in October 2011 after being wrongly accus (...)
- 12 This detailed information was reported during an interview with a Kuwaiti political analyst and jou (...)
- 13 Two MPs, ‘Ādil Sar‘awī and Marzūq al‑Ghānim showed evidence to the parliament of Fahd al‑Aḥmad’s di (...)
10It is said that in 2010 Aḥmad al‑Fahd manoeuvred to have one of his cousins appointed as Prime Minister, namely Muḥammad al‑Sālim, former Minister of Foreign Affairs.11 The Emir finally chose to refer to a Council of Elders comprising major older members of the dynasty and representatives of influent merchant families. The council deemed Aḥmad al‑Fahd’s idea dangerous for the country and for neighbouring monarchies12. Aḥmad al‑Fahd’s “coup” attempt hence ended in failure. This was all the more so because a few months later, in June 2011, he was forced to resign from his Economic and Development portfolio following a grilling procedure launched in parliament.13 His immediate rival Nāṣir Muḥammad indirectly benefited from this situation, garnering wide support within the family.
11The struggle between Aḥmad al‑Fahd and Nāṣir Muḥammad has spilled over to parliamentary politics. Both factions have their own supporters among the MPs, whom they attracted notably by funding their electoral campaign. In return, the co‑opted representatives from each faction would compete during question time in Parliament, which could then be followed by votes of confidence, thus contributing to parliament being frequently dissolved and to repetitive governmental crisis from 2006 until the aftermath of the open crisis in November 2011.
12Indeed, until Nāṣir Muḥammad was forced to step down by the Parliament on November 28, 2011, seven governments had been formed, two of which before elections were due as a result of the parliament being dissolved — in 2008 and 2009. Thus, Kuwaiti political instability is as much the result of harsh rivalries and divisions between high profile princes as of the Parliament’s own shortcomings.
- 14 Interview with Ghānim al‑Najjār, May 2014.
13Even if Kuwait’s constitution allows MPs to question cabinet members and subject them to a vote of no confidence, question time was a relatively rare procedure, especially when directed at ruling family members. According to Ghānim al‑Najjār,14 6 cabinet members were questioned between 1962 and 1976 and only one was a prince. Between 1981 and 1992, 8 cabinet members faced questions and in the post liberation (1992–1996) period, this number fell to 5. The most striking shift occurred during 2006–2011 when a total of 27 cabinet members had to face parliamentary interpellation, 21 being members of the ruling family.
14For most outside observers, the popular mobilizations that unfolded in Kuwait in 2011 looked like a Kuwaiti version of the “Arab Spring” with slogans like “People want the fall of the Prime minister” and with the youth playing a prominent role. While linked to the Arab uprisings, the 2011 events were also the result of previous domestic mobilization in a country with a long history of public political debate and political mobilization.
- 15 Dazi‑Heni, 1996.
- 16 Dazi‑Heni, 2006, p. 235‑269.
15Although political parties are officially banned, non‑official political organizations are tolerated and do operate freely. Trade unions are authorized and very active in the public sector. Moreover, Kuwait is home of a dense network of dīwāniyya,15 these informal home‑based places of gathering which have become widely politicized since the 1981 parliamentary elections, and have served as a renewed social networking platform for political coalitions16. Although the government is discretionarily appointed by the Emir and the main portfolios (Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Information and Prime minister) remain to this day in the hands of senior Al Ṣabāḥ princes, the political system includes an elected parliament with legislative powers as well as the right to question and possibly dismiss ministers.
- 17 Ghabra, 2014, see the quotation, p. 8.
16In addition to the 50 member National Assembly consisting of various elected candidates from different opposition groups or tribes, the 15 cabinet members vote in parliament (making the total number of parliament members about 65). This measure gives a tremendous advantage to the government. As mentioned by Shafeeq Ghabra this reflects a system where conflicts between Parliament and government are inherent: “Kuwait’s partial democracy breeds crises”.17 The Emir also has legislative powers and all bills must be approved by both the Parliament and the Emir, which leads to recurring stalemates.
- 18 Interview with Ghānim al‑Najjār, May 2014.
17According to Ghānim al‑Najjār,18 before 2011 the main destabilizing factor was the struggle for power among the ruling family’s next generation princes. After 2011, the nature of the crisis changed, becoming a face‑off between the ruling family and important segments of the society. The main issue became the status of the dynasty itself in the political system.
- 19 In 1981, the Parliament was reinstated after a five‑year suspension. The Emir took the opportunity (...)
18Since 2006, Kuwait has been experiencing new forms of mobilizations by youth movements. These mobilized in the spring 2006 to demand the redrawing of electoral constituencies. Emulating the modus operandi of the Ukrainian “Orange revolution”, they demonstrated dressed with orange tee‑shirts, chanting the slogan “Nabīha khamsa” (we want five). They demanded that the number of districts be lowered from twenty‑five to five,19 a way to rearticulate the electoral process around broad political issues and move away from clientelist practices favoured by small‑sized constituencies. The “orange” movement managed to get the government to drop the reform, succeeding where “traditional political organizations” had failed. Indeed, most liberal MPs had been calling for this reform for many years but had been unable to garner widespread support for it.
19The 2011 movement very much resembled that of 2006. Many of the political activists involved in the “Nabīha khamsa” movement were at the forefront of the 2011 demonstrations and sit‑ins. As early as November 2010, they launched a campaign on the Internet to demand the ousting of Prime Minister Nāṣir Muḥammad, using “al‑sha‘b yurīd isqāt Nāṣir” (the people wants the fall of Nāṣir) as their main slogan.
20Shaped by a new media environment, significant transformations at the social level were also under way in the mid‑2000s. Changes in the media structure, a more vocal and politicized tribal approach to political opposition as well as youth mobilization constituted the main developments of new forms of activism in Kuwait.
- 20 The first structure plan of Kuwait city drawn up under the reign of Emir ‘Abdallāh al‑Sālim Al Ṣabā (...)
- 21 Longva, 2000, p.179‑197.
21In Kuwait, the word “tribe” refers to a sociological category of the population that came mainly from neighbouring countries (Saudi Arabia, the Khuzestan province in Iran, Jordan and Iraq) in opposition to the settled segments, the merchants and by extension the “ḥaḍār” segment (urban) established in the old city20. Tribes were urbanized later on, in the 1970s. Anh Nga Longva21 notes that “urban people in Kuwait do not refer to themselves as ḥaḍār but simply as Kuwaitis or as “‘people from within the wall’ meaning the wall that used to surround the old town”. It is indeed the badū (tribespeople) who call them ḥaḍār, argues Longva. Likewise, it is mainly the ḥaḍār who speak of the “others” as badū. But badū (tribespeople) is more common as it is also used in national politics when referring to the elected representatives or political groupings from within an exclusively tribal population who lives beyond the fifth ring road circle (see below: “Sūr al‑khāmis”).
22It is also important to clarify here that this politicized tribal movement mainly composed by well‑educated youth has contributed to a change in the “traditional” practices of tribal opposition, which mainly consisted in campaigning to obtain additional resources from the state. These practices were favoured by the ruling family as soon as the 1960s when tribes were brought into the political process to undermine the urban middle class who was the most critical. The tribes’ growing political awareness came as the result of the influence of Islamist movements in tribal areas, which resulted in a new type of tribal activist and parliamentary representative, unlike tribal chiefs loyal to the government and solely focused on the interest of their tribes.
23As stressed by Shafeeq Ghabra,22 the strength of Kuwait’s 2011 movement directly stems from widespread social and political change among the ‘tribes’ younger generation. This evolution contributed to widening the dichotomy between the ancient political order (ruling family, old merchant elites and traditional tribal opposition) and a new generation of political activists coming mainly from peripheral tribal districts, but also from older urban ones (with a mixture of Islamic and secular leanings), all denouncing the lack of economic vision for the country and the rigid administration plagued by corruption.
24The undermining process as a result of the harsh competition among the younger generation of leading members of the Al Ṣabāḥ family, and the unwillingness of the current Emir to arbitrate it has contributed to exacerbate the lack of confidence between a youth that represent demographically a large majority of society (with 70% of Kuwaiti citizens under the age of 29), and an old established merchant oligarchy along with a stagnant executive power. The continuing combination of the concentration of wealth in the hands of old merchant families controlling the private sector and the dynastical dominance of the political system fostered the politicization of well‑educated tribal youth. During our frequent visits in Kuwait from the mid‑2000s to 2012, we perceived a higher anxiety from old urban districts vis‑à‑vis the growing political activism from the peripheral districts, and which the government has tried to use to feed greater cultural dichotomy between tribal and urban political activists (as we will see further on) since the late 2000s and more obviously during the protest movement of early 2011.
25Three developments have had a major impact on Kuwaiti social change and politics. First, the change in the media structure and the considerable influence of social media has highly impacted forms of mobilization. Second, a major shift of allegiance occurred vis‑à‑vis the royal family and tribes. The third major change factor in the Kuwaiti socio‑political context is the unprecedented weight of youth mobilization in the public space.
- 23 Diwan, 2014.
- 24 Interview with Tāriq al‑Mutayrī, head of the HDM (al-Ḥaraka al‑Dīmūqrāṭiyya al‑Madaniyya) or CDM (C (...)
26During previous mobilizations, money and family reputation were the main tools to build social networks (see below: the 1986–1990 movement). In the second half of the 2000s, the “orange movement” successfully contributed to democratize and expand popular mobilization through internet chat rooms.23 Facebook, YouTube and, in 2011, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, created new mobilization dynamics. The value of these new media social networks have been of particular significance to the youth: since 2011 Twitter and WhatsApp have become the main platform for political communication because of the speediness of the connections as one of the prominent leader of this youth movement, Ṭāriq al‑Mutayrī,24 told us.
- 25 Dubai School of Government, 2013.
27It must be said that Kuwait is one of the four biggest social network users among Arab countries along with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. GCC countries make up 85 per cent of active Twitter users in the Arab world25, with Saudi Arabia at the leading front in both Twitter and YouTube downloads per Internet users. But Kuwaiti activists learned to master Internet and modern ITC technologies years before the “Arab spring”. This tool of mobilization had already played a key role during the 2006 movement.
28The shift from allegiance to opposition among major parts of the tribal population during the 2000 decade changed significantly the balance power in Kuwaiti politics. The tribes’ attitude can be contrasted to their position during the June 1990 crisis, when opposition forces called for the boycott of the elections of the “National Council”, an assembly deprived of legislative powers due to replace the National Assembly disbanded in 1986. In this trial of strength with the ruling family, the tribes sided with the dynasty. 22 years later, when a similar boycott campaign targeted the 1 December 2012 parliamentary election, the major tribes were the predominant opposition forces, demonstrating how much their relation with the Al Ṣabāḥ had dramatically changed.
29As a number of tribal figures have invested themselves in the media and taken up academic and professional positions, the result has been a growing political consciousness and self‑confidence vis‑à‑vis the ḥaḍār segment, resulting in a deepening of the urban/tribe divide. Tribes accused the main merchant families of monopolizing the economy with the major princes. Resentment has also been fed by concrete measures as the suppression of primary tribal elections26 or the 2008 izāla law, when the government ordered the dismantlement of private constructions such as dīwāniyya‑s. The latest episode came in the form of an anti‑tribal diatribe on a TV program of private TV channel al‑Scope, claiming that tribespeople were not true Kuwaitis by contrast with the ḥaḍār, considered as the original and pure Kuwaitis. Knowing that most media outlets such as newspapers and television channels belong to leading members of the ruling family, it is fair to assume that the executive power was behind this episode.
- 27 « Marches of Dignity » refer to the largest protests in the country’s history with ten of thousands (...)
30The third major factor of change in the Kuwaiti socio‑cultural context is the youth mobilization. From the orange movement in 2006 to the National Dignity Marches of fall 201227, the youth have played a primordial role in bringing street mobilization to the forefront of political contestation. A number of youth activists originally affiliated with different political organizations mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood but also liberal groups, wanted to clearly establish that the youth movement with “Nabīha 5” (2006), “al‑Sūr al‑Khāmis” (Fifth wall) in 2008, “Irḥal” (“go out” or “degage” in January 2011 in Tunisia) (2009), “Kāfī” (Enough) and “Nahj” (way), both created in 2011, was an independent actor.
- 28 Cadène, 2013.
- 29 Longva, 2006.
31“Al‑Sūr al‑Khāmis” and “Kāfī” denounced ethnic and sectarian divides among Kuwaitis. The name “al‑Sūr al‑Khāmis” refers to the fifth ring road which marks the extension of the separation between the old urban city and the new districts, often referred to as the “outlying areas” and where the bulk of the tribal population has been living since the urbanization wave that began in the late sixties.28 The fifth ring road is both a social and a symbolic separation that materializes the high degree of segregation that exists in the Kuwaiti society between old urbanized people and the newly‑urbanized people.29 Although tribal young men are dominant within al‑Sūr al‑Khāmis, the movement recruits beyond this social category as its objective is to overcome the dichotomy between “urban” and “tribal” Kuwaitis.
32The energy of the different youth movements converged to foster cross‑cutting actions in favour of unity, democracy and civil rights, hence tackling the “divide and rule” strategy regularly used by the Al Ṣabāḥ family. Their main goal was to promote mobilization beyond the milieu of young well‑educated tribal people.
- 30 Interview, June 2011, with Dr Muḥammad al‑Fīlī, professor of Law at Kuwait University and expert in (...)
33These youth movements have succeeded in creating a new political dynamic, focusing popular mobilization on a call for the establishment of an actual constitutional monarchy where citizens would be equal. It resorts to mass demonstrations. “Civil Democratic Movement” (HADAM ‑ al‑Ḥaraka al‑dīmūqrātiyya al madaniyya), “Nahj” and “Takattul 11/11” are one of the numerous societies created to promote civil rights and issues of public interest30 like transparency and anti‑corruption measures. They mobilize without referring to Islamic values that are deeply rooted socially.
- 31 Interview with Dr Muḥammad al‑Fīlī, June 2011.
34Many Kuwaitis consider that youth movements like al‑Sūr al‑Khāmis, which do not display a clear ideological identity and claim total independence vis‑à‑vis the old political coalitions, are mainly manipulated by Islamists.31 But it is not clear who is influencing whom. Moreover, most of these new political activists consider that traditional political groups (either liberal or Islamists) share responsibility with the government and the dynasty for the failures of the Kuwaiti democratic experience. They even blame the “traditional opposition” for the patrimonial nature of politics, something it has been unable to change.
- 32 Al‑Najjār, 2012
- 33 Al‑Mudayrīs, 1999c.
- 34 Al‑Mudayrīs, 1999b.
- 35 Tetreault, 2000.
35This “traditional opposition” used to function under the Al Ṣabāḥ leadership momentum in a context of “divide and rule” and policies of co‑optation through indirect re‑circulation of rents. What we are witnessing since the 2011 mobilization of the youth movement is a deep renewal of Kuwaiti political activism.32 Kuwait has been alternatively ideologically dominated by several currents. The liberal merchant oligarchy, the nationalist and progressive currents represented by Nasserist and Ba‘thist figures dominated until sixties. Since the mid‑sixties and much more in the seventies Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood were organized through the “Social Reform Society” created in 1963 (Jama‘iya al‑iṣlāḥ al‑ijtimā‘ī)33. Then came the politicization of salafists during the 1980s with the establishment in late 1981 of the “Revival Islamic Heritage Society”34 (Jama‘iyat iḥyā’ al‑turāth al‑islāmī). Both have gained momentum among tribal leaders.35
- 36 Lahoud, 2008, p.123‑135.
36But the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion followed by the Gulf War contributed to fragmenting the Islamist coalitions. This was mainly due to the position of the international Muslim Brotherhood society against the entry of foreign troops into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which they harshly criticized. This led to a process of “kuwaitization” of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood, which broke away from the worldwide organization and renamed itself the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM — or HADAS — al‑Ḥaraka al‑dustūriyya al‑islāmiyya”) in 30 March 1990. The second consequence came further on with the impact of Saudi Islamic dissent in the mid‑1990s, in particular the emergence of the Ṣaḥwa movement which denounced the submission of the religious establishment to the Al Saud family. It led to the fragmentation of the Salafi trend in Kuwait in the mid‑2000s.36
- 37 Louër, 2008, p. 57‑65.
37Moreover, the national unity momentum created by the Gulf War in Kuwait did not last long. The coalition of Sunni Islamists and tribal leaders created resentment among urban people, who denounced the “tribalization” of political Islamic activism and felt increasingly threatened as a social category. For the same reasons, the Shi‘is have come considerably closer to the ruling dynasty (even if this political alliance is one of the pillars of the ruling dynasty’s governance strategy of the city‑state since the beginning of last century)37 to garner protection from increasingly anti‑Shi‘i language among segments of salafi and tribal leaders.
- 38 Interview with Ṭāriq al‑Mutayrī, May 2014.
38Most of the youth movements initiated in the early 2010s (“Nahj”, “Irḥal”) were poorly structured. An exception was “Kāfī”, which has now been diluted into the new Civil Democratic Movement (CDM‑HADAM), and which used to obey a strict organization chart put forward in February 2012 by Ṭāriq al‑Mutayrī38, one of the leaders of “Kāfī”.
39These two movements stem from the same matrix, an Islamic coalition (including Salafis coming mainly from Ḥizb al‑Umma).39 This new political grouping was founded in January 2005 and the majority of its members come from al‑Jahrā’ (a major tribal peripheral district). Labelling itself “ḥizb” (party) has provoked the government’s discontent as it was a prelude to a radical shift in Kuwait political activism clearly demanding deep political reforms with the establishment of political parties. Even though this “party” failed in the 2008 legislative ballot (of the twelve candidates none were elected), it has largely contributed to create the impetus of political reforms on the agenda of national debate.
- 40 According to the famous Salafi Islamist opponent, Walīd Tabtabā’ī, former MP of the National Assemb (...)
40Today Kuwait’s political life is being reorganized through a proliferation of associations40 and groups which want to operate a total renewal of the political class in general and the ruling elite in particular. However, while these groups are able to mobilize crowds during parliamentary sessions and electoral days, they have a limited number of active members. They concentrate their efforts during confrontation times, pushing for demonstrations and calling for the dismissal of ministers but do not seem able to capitalize on this. Paradoxically, they have contributed to maintaining the current aged dynastic leadership, which although it very weak is still able to maintain control, notably through manipulating divides in the opposition. During our frequent visits to Kuwait along the beginning of this decade, it was quite difficult to meet with articulate figures from this youth movement.
- 41 Diwan, 2014.
- 42 Interview with Ṭāriq al‑Mutayrī, May 2014, Kuwait.
- 43 Interview with Ṭāriq al‑Mutayrī, May 2014, Kuwait.
41The Civil Democratic Movement somehow stands as an exception. Mainly active on social networks, in particular on Twitter, it is the first independent youth society in the GCC.41 It wants to exist independently from the traditional political organizations. The innovation was “to create a rational and pragmatic movement to promote social cohesiveness and avoid ideology”42. Tāriq al‑Mutayrī, the founder, was a member of the Muslim brothers (ICM) from 1995 who resigned in mid‑2010 to join Ḥizb al‑Umma. While it is dominated by tribespeople, the CDM includes individuals from all segments of the Kuwaiti society, even a few Shi‘is. Speaking on the profile of the new “Homo politicus” in Kuwait, Tāriq al‑Mutayrī describes it as “socially conservative and politically liberal”43, as are most of the Kuwaiti youth.
- 44 The other movements are the National Islamic Coalition (al‑Taḥāluf al‑Islāmī al‑Waṭanī, a pro‑Irani (...)
42The main objective of the CDM is a new parliamentary system, to change the electoral law, to achieve a judicial transition by establishing mechanisms which guaranty the independence of the courts from the executive power, and to rationalize political life by the constitutional legalization of political parties. It also has the ambition to compete with other main political societies as MCI, al‑Minbār al‑Dīmūqrāṭī (progressive movement of Nasserist origin created in 1992) and the new movements recently created by major political tenors: the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM or HACHD - Ḥarakat al‑sha‘b al‑dīmūqrāṭī, March 2014) with Musallam al‑Barrāk and Aḥmad al‑Sa‘dūn (see below), even the National Democratic Coalition (mainly merchants and liberals).44
- 45 Interview with Ṭāriq al‑Mutayrī on May 2014, Kuwait.
43Though it has less than 100 active members, the CDM set a precedent by holding open elections on February 2012 for its leadership and articulating a concrete political agenda. In repeating its objective to rationalize Kuwait political life, Ṭāriq al‑Mutayrī, who is now the CDM’s elected president,45 has demanded that the government and the Prime Minister be elected.
- 46 During my last fieldwork in order to update my data on Kuwait politics between 2012 and 2014, I sha (...)
44A number of Kuwaitis,46 however, are sceptical about the CDM’s ability to bring about political change because of its lack of contacts with the great princes. Actually, this absence of princely connections makes the youth movement dependant on the “traditional opposition”, whose strategic support remains vital in order to achieve reforms. This indeed requires a form of compromise with the ruling elite or at least some of its main figures. Contrary to this young counter‑movement, the established opposition made up of “political entrepreneurs” who form a kind of “political notability” share networks and personal contacts with the Al Ṣabāḥ dynasty.
- 47 The “bidūn jinsīya” represent at least 105,702 people in Kuwait (Human Rights Watch World Report/ c (...)
45This dependence was manifested during the 2011 and 2012 protests, which were multifaceted and heterogeneous. In early spring 2011, a few hundred bidūn (stateless people)47 organized a demonstration to protest their conditions and demand the right to acquire Kuwaiti citizenship. This was followed by a wave of strikes in the public sector denouncing the government’s economic mismanagement, the rampant corruption in the public administration and the urgent need to launch reforms in order to make Kuwait, whose wealth is similar to Qatar’s, an attractive place of investment based on the model of Dubai and Doha. In the meantime in June, Aḥmad al‑Fahd was forced to resign by the parliament and thirteen members of parliament were sent to appear before the Public prosecutor on charges of money laundering.
46The demonstrations intensified in November 2011 as investigations proved the implication of these MPs in bribe‑taking and making suspicious money deposits ($350 million) supposedly coming from Prime Minister Nāṣir Muḥammad. On November 16th, about 60,000 to 100,000 Kuwaitis, mostly young men with a tribal background with at their head opposition MPs tenors demanding the dismissal of the Prime Minister, stormed the parliament.
47This major and unique event resulted in the unprecedented resignation of the Prime minister on November 28, 2011. The Emir then appointed Jābir Mubārak as the new Prime minister. He was the former Minister of Defence and he is also a potential number three in the race for succession. The new head of the government decided to disband the parliament on 6 December 2011 and to schedule elections for February 2012. The storming of the parliament, however, divided the population, bringing discredit to the opposition in the eyes of many Kuwaitis. Building on this, the government arrested a number of young activists. Their comrades reacted by organizing daily gatherings in front of the Ministry of Justice to demand their release.
- 48 Shafeeq Ghabra, Al‑Hayat, June 6, 2013.
48As underlined by Shafeeq Ghabra, “what used to be appropriate before, until the sixties, is no longer appropriate”.48 Not only has the population of the tribal districts undergone demographic growth so that the peripheral tribal districts represent the majority of today’s Kuwait, they have also witnessed an important rise in their education level and have been better integrated into the various political and civil society groups. These social categories experiencing upward social mobility want to be better represented among the elites running the country.
49Other social categories have also experienced change and are asserting their rights, becoming increasingly visible. After decades of militancy for their civic rights finally obtained in 2006, the change of the electoral law granted women full political rights despite the strong opposition from Islamist MPs.49 In 2008, 4 women were elected as MPs, but in the following parliaments, this number fell to two or even one in the current one, but several women have since become ministers. What distinguishes the political position of women in Kuwait from other Gulf monarchies is the fact that they have gained their full political rights without resorting to quota systems.
50Even the “bidūn”, who are over‑represented in the army, want a change of status and are getting organized to draw the rulers’ and civil society’s attention.
51Faced with this new social context, however, the ruling elite is unwilling to alter the dual contract between the ruling dynasty and the old urban merchant class. In other words, the rulers are seeking to maintain the political status quo at the expense of emerging social categories that see themselves as representing proficiency and efficiency in front of an aging elite who favours patronage over competence.
52Despite that however, the popular movement that emerged since 2006 and was revived in 2011 aimed to improve the functioning of the state without a change of regime, i.e. it agrees to maintain the status and role of the royal family. This is even true of the most virulent populist protestors, like Musallam al‑Barrāk, prominent opposition tenor (see below his profile) well known for his harsh critiques towards the Emir yet who has never demanded a regime change.
53These demands were already present during the protest movement that occurred between October 1986 and June 1990, after the decision of the Emir to dissolve the Parliament. As compared with this earlier example, the protests which have developed since 2006 have grown in terms of the social categories involved. The mobilization was also faster thanks to new social media and networks. These new mobilization tactics partly explain why the popular protest of the early 2010s, like the other “Arab Spring” contestation, display a relative anonymous character, especially compared with mobilizations in the 1980s, which were highly embedded into existing political groups and networks.
- 50 Dazi‑Heni, 1996, 3rd part, chapter 2.
54The 1986‑1990 movement was headed by high‑ranking, skilled political activists coming from all religious and social backgrounds in the country. It was dominated by two moments. The first one witnessed the formation of a coalition of 32 opposition MPs elected in the 1985 Assembly, asking for the reinstatement of the parliament. The second moment occurred with the formation in September 1988 of a group of 45 influential civil society figures and activists willing to enrol citizens all over the country in order to organize collective mobilization around the dīwāniyya‑s of the said 32 MPs. Hence the success of the movement50 drew from the position, reputation and influence of major political actors, like Aḥmad Sa‘dūn, who headed the 1985 Parliament.
55In 2011 and 2012, when the clash between the regime and a growing number of citizens reached its peak, it reflected in the results of the February 2012 elections (with 35 of the 50 seats in the National Assembly going to opposition candidates). For the first time, the opposition dominated the legislature. Far more assertive than any other parliament, the opposition worked to introduce a law guarantying the independence of the courts. But the Emir announced an unprecedented one‑month suspension of the parliament and the Constitutional court dissolved it on 16 June 2012, declaring it illegal because the elections were flawed. The parliament elected in February 2012 was simply cancelled and its members were denied the status of “former MPs”.51 The 2009 parliament was reinstated but as more than two thirds of the MPs refused to reconvene, new elections were scheduled for 1 December 2012. A number of constitutional court sessions led to the dissolution of two parliaments in the same year, for “technical” reasons.
56Far from putting an end to the political crisis however, tensions remained high. Opposition movements, in particular, demanded the revocation of a new electoral law imposed by decree by the Emir on October 19th 2012. This new law stipulated that each voter could vote for only one candidate, cancelling a provision of the previous law which allowed voters to vote for up to four candidates and was seen by the opposition as facilitating coalition‑building. In the eyes of the rulers, the new law would help reduce the number of potential opponents to the government and facilitate the co‑option of candidates by members of the ruling family.
57A few days before the announcement of the decree, the opposition, which was anticipating the unilateral decision of the Emir, had convened a large gathering of protesters at Irāḍa square, in front of the parliament where demonstrations had been held every Friday since September 2012. During this rally, on October 15, former MP Musallam al‑Barrāk directly addressed the Emir in these terms: “We will not allow your highness to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy… We no longer fear your prisons and your riot batons”.
58Typical of the new elites from the tribal districts, Musallam al‑Barrāk, from the powerful al‑Mutayr tribe, is affiliated with the former Popular Action Bloc (PAB) created in 1992 under the previous parliament speaker, Aḥmad Sa‘dūn (now a veteran opposition activist). As mentioned previously, the PAB was restructured and renamed the Popular Movement for Democracy (PMD) or “HACHD in Arabic” in March 2014. Inspired by the street youth movement, Musallam al‑Barrāk, who began his activist career as a trade unionist and has been elected for six consecutive terms making him the longest‑serving member of Parliament, has become a symbolic national figure embodying the empowerment of marginal tribes and social groups. In his portrayal of Musallam al‑Barrāk, Shafeeq Ghabra52stresses that for the first time in Kuwaiti politics, the leading figure of the opposition comes from the tribal majority. Therefore, old merchant elites allied with Al Ṣabāḥ family are deeply fearful of his rise.
- 53 Tens of thousands Kuwaitis demanded that the Emir withdraw the new electoral law, chanting “we will (...)
- 54 Al‑Barrāk was first sentenced to 5 years jail for insulting the Emir on April 2013 but after a cour (...)
59The speech al‑Barrāk made during the Dignity of the Nation march, the largest in Kuwait’s history,53 was the first of its kind in Kuwait as the constitution prohibits, directly or indirectly, criticizing the Emir. Al‑Barrāk was tried and condemned in court for his action, along with hundreds of others54.
60Beyond the conflict over the decree changing the electoral law however, the October 2012 events reflected an increasing popular adhesion to the project of changing the way the Prime Minister is designated. Until now indeed, the appointment of the Prime Minister is the prerogative of the Emir, who has always chosen someone among the powerful princes of the Al Ṣabāḥ family. Since the resignation of Prime Minister Nāṣir Muḥammad in November 2011, the idea has been making its way in Kuwaiti society that the Prime Minister should be chosen by the Emir from the parliamentary majority.
61This Irāḍa Square mobilization resulted in a massive boycott of the elections of the following parliaments (1 December 2013 and 27 July 2013) orchestrated by the opposition and the leaders of the major tribes. The level of participation was the lowest ever witnessed since the establishment of parliamentary elections in 1963: only 38 per cent of voters went to the polls. While this helped the government, which has been dealing with a pro‑government parliament since 2013, it did not bring stability as the on‑going political stalemate shows.
62The Al Ṣabāḥ dynasty has not often resorted to force to assert itself over its opposition. Hence, the repeated use of state violence since the “Arab Spring” is revealing of an increasingly uncompromising approach by the rulers. State violence has been used notably during the October 2012 Irāḍa square gatherings, where participants were attacked with batons and tear gas by security forces helped by the National Guard. Many demonstrators were wounded and arrested, including a number of MPs of the dismissed February 2012 parliament.
- 55 Interview with Ghānim al‑Najjār, May 2014 and Al‑Najjār, 2014.
63However, violence is only one tool among others, and the rulers’ management of the crisis is much more insidious. They largely build on a growing fatigue of Kuwaitis who, faced with a succession of political scandals and stalemates, tend to be more and more disenchanted with parliamentary politics, feeling that the Kuwaiti democratic experience is a failure. This is exemplified by the decrease in the participation rate since 2006. Official figures show that the standard average of voters from 1981 to 2006 ballots was around 80% and that this average dropped significantly with the May 2009 elections, just below 60%. Finally, last July 2013 ballot did not reach 52% of voters.55
64While this fatigue translates into a growing disaffection towards the ruling family, it also affects the “traditional opposition”, which is often accused of adding tensions that impede the building of consensus and hence contribute to the current political stalemate.
- 56 Al‑Waṭan, the first daily of the country, belongs to ‘Alī al‑Khalīfa, Minister of Oil during the 19 (...)
65The rulers have also resorted to the media to delegitimize the opposition. As mentioned above, the role of newspapers and TV channels has become more important since the mid‑2000s. Their number has grown, reaching more than 14 dailies and 13 TV channels. These media are mostly controlled by members of the ruling family close to the Emir, former Prime Minister Nāṣir Muḥammad and his rival former Minister of Economy and Development, Aḥmad al‑Fahd.56 Even if some editorials published by al‑Qabas and al‑Jarīda newspapers, which are close to the liberal merchant families, continue to report assaults on demonstrators, most of the news coverage keeps silent on the violence or reports on opposition demonstrations in a distorted manner, describing demonstrators as rioters pushing for chaos.
66The regime benefited from the boycott manoeuver, which in the end essentially damaged the opposition, making it strategically inept. The regime has also been skilful at manipulating factionalism through co‑optation. Exploiting the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shi‘is is part of this game, in the context of growing sectarian tensions in the region at large, nurtured by the “cold war” opposing Saudi Arabia to Iran which is particularly manifest in the Syrian civil war.57
- 58 Weber, 1979.
- 59 Al‑Mudayrīs, 1999a.
- 60 Azoulay, 2013, p. 67‑99.
67With the introduction of mass politics through parliamentary institutions, a smooth transition from the politics of notables (merchant elite) to political entrepreneurs 58 (new middle‑class elites) has occurred, of which the empowerment of the new tribal elites is only the latest symptom. This process has also impacted the Shi‘i community.59As mentioned above, despite some tensions in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution in Iran, Shi‘is in Kuwait have been traditionally close to the ruling dynasty. Tribal and salafi opposition figures have accused the Al Ṣabāḥ to favour the interests of the Shi‘i community at the expense of the Sunnis. In 2008, the so‑called “Mugniyyeh affair” increased the sectarian divide. The National Islamic Coalition, the main Shi‘i political grouping in Kuwait, organized a meeting to commemorate the assassination of ‘Imad Mughniyeh, a leading figure of the Lebanese Hezbullah suspected of having organized a series of attacks in Kuwait in the 1980s. This provoked widespread indignation in Kuwaiti society,60 in particular among Sunni Islamists activists (Salafists and Muslim brothers).
- 61 Shaykh Nāṣir also served as Kuwait Ambassador in Iran for eleven years.
68Ex‑Prime Minister Nāṣir Muḥammad61 is known to cultivate privileged ties with the Shi‘is, which has reinforced anti‑Shi‘i feelings among the tribal populations. As head of government, Shaykh Nāṣir solicited the support of the Shi‘i minority and liberal forces (main representatives of the urban politicized middle class) to counter the large voting bloc of tribal constituencies backed by his worst rival Aḥmad al‑Fahd. Hence intra‑family rivalries contributed to fan sectarian tensions. These tensions rose again after the massive boycott of December 2012, when 17 Shi‘i MPs were elected, an abnormal proportion as compared to the Shi‘i share in the population, which is estimated around 25%. Usually, there are in average between 5 and 7 Shi‘i MPs.
69The government also tried to divide the tribes. During the July 2013 elections, it attempted to ally with small tribes like the al‑Rashīdī and al‑Dhafīrī at the expense of the larger ones (al‑Mutayr, al‑‘Awāzim, al‑‘Ajmān) that boycotted the ballot. This led to an over representation of minor tribes in the parliament. The 2013 parliament was able to vote a number of laws that strengthened the regime. Besides validating the amendment to the electoral law that fostered massive anti‑government demonstrations, they also voted populist measures such as the cancelation of loan interests of indebted Kuwaitis.
70Moreover, the government passed a new media law known as the “unified media law”62 which significantly restricts media freedom and particularly targets social media. Twitter users were especially targeted with penalties for offending the Emir, the Constitution or formulating open critics on the ruling system. It was put on hold due to wide‑scale local opposition and critiques coming mainly from US civil rights NGOs. Hence the last Human Rights Watch World Report63 included an entire chapter on human rights in Kuwait, revealing how Kuwaiti authorities came down hard on free speech in 2013. During that year, the authorities brought cases against 29 people (compared to 9 cases in 2012) who expressed critical views during demonstrations but also on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other social media platforms.
71Another significant move indicating that Kuwaiti authorities are hardening their position toward civil rights and liberties is the approval by the government of the Gulf Security Treaty signed by the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on November 14, 2012. This treaty is an amended version of the first Gulf Security pact initially endorsed by three of the six member States in December 1994 (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, Qatar will join it later on 2009) and which gives a large room of manoeuvre for acting against opposition activists.
72Among other things, the treaty stipulates that the signatories will cooperate with one another in the pursuit of outlaws and wanted people regardless of their nationality. It also makes provision for exchanging intelligence relating to cyber criminality and for setting up a monitoring system blocking social networks. It gives member states the ability to work collectively or bilaterally to achieve effective operational cooperation among their security services and provide support and assistance for any state party facing unrest. In this framework, Kuwait could be forced to extradite someone wanted by another GCC member. Moreover, Kuwait could witness direct military intervention by a Gulf neighbour on the model of the Peninsula Shield intervention in Bahrain in March 2011which marked the final repression of protest in this country.
- 64 “Sovereignty concerns in GCC Security Pact”, Arab Times, 27 May 2013.
- 65 Habib Toumi: “Kuwait Parliamentary committee rejects GCC security pact”, www.gulfnews.com, April 3, (...)
73Until now, the various parliaments had always refused to endorse this treaty as several of its articles (articles 2, 4, 9, 10, 14 and 16)64 contradict and violate constitutional laws on freedom of expression. All GCC members have come to sign and ratify the treaty with the exception of Kuwait. Qatar ratified it on August 28, 2013, Saudi Arabia on September 16, 2013, the UAE on October 21, 2013, Bahrain on November 27, 2013 and Oman on January 14, 2014. The Kuwaiti government is under growing pressure from other GCC states and is pressuring the parliament to ratify the treaty. Nevertheless, the Kuwaiti National Assembly Foreign Relations Committee rejected the Gulf Security Pact on April 3, 2014, arguing that the above articles of the Pact contradict the Kuwaiti Constitution.65 This decision echoed a large popular approval among all segments of the society, even from co‑opted Shi‘i MPs and the whole community.
- 66 Huthis are Zaydi Shi‘i fighters also known since 2014 as “Anṣār Allāh” (Partisans of God). See ICG, (...)
74The reasserted authoritarian tendencies of the Kuwaiti regime are but one aspect of a regional move that is everywhere empowering security apparatuses. Saudi Arabia is leading this move by pressuring its neighbours to establish a common Defence and Security apparatus and summoning Kuwaiti rulers not to tolerate anymore the actions of its opposition. Also the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intervened in a number of Arab transitioning states with the aim of countering the challenges posed by the Iranian hegemonic threat in the Middle East, the rise of Muslim brotherhood or jihadi threats embodied by al‑Qaida and the Islamic state. But KSA, with the new leadership under King Salmān, has recently tempered its hard line‑view on the Muslim brotherhood, leaving the UAE at the forefront with Egyptian president al‑Sīssī of an ideological war to deal a crushing blow to the Muslim brothers (MB) in order to focus on containing the Huthis in Yemen,66 thus countering Iran’s growing influence in the Arab Middle East and combatting jihadists.
- 67 Gause, 2014.
- 68 Wehrey, 2015.
75The new proactive Saudi regional policy was mainly meant to be defensive rather than offensive (despite the coalition war led by KSA in Yemen since March 26, 2015) aiming to contain Iran67 has had negative impacts on sectarianism all over the area and has complicated an already tense domestic situation in Kuwait. Frederic Wehrey argues that many of the recipients of Saudi support since “Arab spring” are authoritarian and anti‑liberal.68 In addition, Riyadh has intensified its efforts to bring the GCC regimes together as shown with the security agreement or even in setting up a fund along with the richest GCC states to help Bahrain and Oman to keep the social peace (a promise of $10 billion over a decade for each).
76Kuwait seems more than ever in a situation of political blockage. On the one hand, the level of politicization, the deeply entrenched tradition of free expression and the widespread use of social networks means maintaining control by the government is more arduous. On the other hand, the level of pressure with a resurgent authoritarian GCC under the leadership of KSA pursuing an activist foreign policy will not encourage the Al Ṣabāḥ to achieve meaningful democratic reforms in a close future.
77Nevertheless, Kuwait has no tradition of political violence, and even at the climax of political confrontation (2012 and 2013 with massive activist arrests) the Emir acquitted most of those sentenced on charges related to their criticizing him. Therefore as the “traditional opposition” and the youth movements proved to peacefully push for significant change in governance, the ruling family may find a solution to end internal rivalries and search for a new balance to rule the country.
78The issue of the status and the role of the dynasty appears to be central in order to end the political stalemate but at the same time in the current GCC environment with its reasserted authoritarianism a constitutional monarchy and a popularly elected prime minister would be seen as a red line.