The decree passed by Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad has reduced from four to one the number of votes that can be cast by a voter. The decision has caused an uproar. The one-vote project and the Dec. 1 elections have triggered massive popular and youth protests, and have reshaped the role of the Kuwaiti political opposition.
The independent youth movements are demanding that the decree be annulled and that the election go ahead according to the previous law, which had five districts and four votes per voter. The Kuwaiti opposition has taken the same position, thus turning the opposition into a majority. At the same time, certain tribal forces have become a numerical minority and are concerned about the Kuwaiti opposition’s increasing strength and about its own base of support in the tribal majority areas.
The current dispute and the Kuwaiti political movement associated with it is full of vitality and is interacting with the Kuwaiti changes over the past 20 years. Over the past two decades, there has been an increased community awareness among Kuwaitis. New social forces have emerged, such as a middle class that spans all segments of society and is adversely affected by bad management, lack of economic transparency and corruption. Also over the past 20 years, the role of the tribal regions has changed. The people there have become more educated to confront their marginalization. There is now a large sector of society whose progress has become linked to its ability to build a political system that achieves accountability and puts the right person in the right place, promotes freedoms, improves democracy and respects the rights of all of society's components.
What is happening in Kuwait is not a revolution. It is a movement that is loyal to the political system, to the Kuwaiti constitution and to the emir. The new generation, which is the majority of the population, wants a more modern country, more rational laws, less corruption and a merit-based economic system that helps the middle class and the marginalized. All the protests (there has so far been two protests of over 200,000 people and held under the banner "the dignity of the homeland") have so far been peaceful. They have called for dignity and the annulment of the decree.
The Kuwaiti youth movement was helped by Twitter and social networking. The movement has been building for a few years and started before the Arab Spring. The movement has removed the distinctions between societal groups by focusing on the civil state, which can accommodate all: the tribes (the new majority that feels marginalized), the old elite that is afraid of the tribal majority, the Shiites — who are afraid of the religious currents — and women, who are the weaker half of society and its most productive.
The youth movement has a lot of spontaneity and is lacking of an ideological identity. It has recently gained momentum and was joined by new non-political groups. It is growing and gaining experience. More importantly, it has increasingly gained control of the Kuwaiti political scene and has clearly put pressure on parliament and the traditional opposition, which is more affected by the movement than affecting it.
The Kuwaiti traditional opposition, which has lately been referred to as the “majority forces,” is made up of Islamists and liberals. Among the opposition's most influential leaders is former MP Musallem al-Barrak, who became a symbol — or rather a party by himself — for the opposition forces. The strength of the opposition leaders lies in the fact that they stand politically halfway between the authorities and the youth movement. The opposition is affected by the youth movement but it also has some ability to affect the movement. However that would require flexibility by the executive branch in providing solutions and exits to the current crisis. Without this, the youth movement will not accept flexibility on the part of the deputies. This shows that the Kuwaiti movement is patient and reform-minded. It wants to annul the decree, not bring down the regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not the movement's engine. The Muslim Brotherhood — or the Constitutional Movement in Kuwait — is merely one of the many opposition forces. Moreover, it is loyal to the state and to the emir, even though it wants to annul the decree just like most opposition forces. The Brotherhood was present in previous governments and were part of parliament just like others. It has been a political party since 1990 and has undergone a lot of changes.
It should be noted that the traditional opposition has committed many mistakes. It has successfully issued new laws, particularly in the areas of supervision and accountability. The opposition has fought corruption and has proposed laws about an independent judiciary. But those law proposals went nowhere. The opposition also suffered from internal fragmentation and it got caught up in personal quarrels with ministers and raised issues that seemed to target certain societal groups. It can be said that the decree issued by the emir gave the opposition, at best, a moderate chance of winning a parliamentary majority. But the political divisions following the decree and the youth movement breathed life into the opposition.
The Kuwaiti opposition's dilemma is the result of a significant imbalance in Kuwaiti democracy, which still does not recognize political parties and political bodies. The Kuwaiti political currents operate in an unofficial manner and there is no law organizing their role. This makes every individual in the opposition capable of taking whichever stance they want, thus weakening the role of parliament. Our partial democracy breeds crises. Kuwait's main problem is that it has never developed its democracy. That has produced disagreements that can only be solved by political development. Society has evolved and changed. But legitimate political structures did not evolve and change alongside large segments of society.
The current crisis may be long and may take several turns. The Dec. 1 elections will produce a weak parliament that lacks independence. This means that the real parliament in Kuwait will be the larger political movement in the streets. Kuwait is reeling. There is a battle on the shape of the government and on the nature of political representation in it. Throughout its history, Kuwait has found ways to avoid divisions and respect popular will. It will take a lot of effort to move the political life toward a democracy whose focal point is the recognition of the citizen as a real partner in governing and the public as the source of coexistence.