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Kuwait abandons regional neutrality, backs Egypt's Sisi

Kuwait had sought to steer clear of Arab uprisings by remaining neutral, but its decision to back Egypt's Field Marshal Sisi marks a shift in policy.
Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) attends the military funeral service of Police General Nabil Farag, who was killed on Thursday in Kerdasa, at Al-Rashdan Mosque in Cairo's Nasr City district September 20, 2013. Egyptian security forces were hunting for supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood on Friday after retaking control of a town near Cairo in a crackdown on Islamists. On Thursday, army and police forces stormed Kerdasa where Islamist sympathies run deep and ho

Over the past three years of Arab revolutions, Kuwait’s foreign policies have shifted drastically, reflecting a change in its approach toward the region. During the 18 days of the Egyptian revolution, Kuwaiti authorities warned against protests at home, while attempting to remain neutral in their comments about President Hosni Mubarak’s future. Mubarak's eventual downfall was no doubt worrisome to his Kuwaiti friends, among them the ruling family, investors and nationalists.

The Egyptian army’s role in the liberation of Kuwait after its invasion by Iraq was seen as courtesy of Mubarak, but the coup d’etat that took place in Egypt on July 3, 2013 showed that Mubarak was not Kuwait and the Gulf states' only favored star. The oil countries rushed to offer their moral and financial support to the new potentate, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, employing the rhetoric of Arab nationalism. Kuwait’s changing stance in regard to Egyptian politics reveals much about the country’s political conflicts and fears.

In April 2010, Kuwait deported 17 Egyptians for demonstrating in support of Mohammed ElBaradei. In November 2012, another 19 were deported for fundraising for ElBaradei’s party, Al-Dostour. In August 2013, nine more Egyptians were deported for protesting the Rabia al-Adawiya killings, in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Kuwait. A Palestinian man, Omar Abu Umara, is said to still be in jail for participating in this last demonstration. The arrests and deportations stemming from protests reflect Kuwaiti rulers' fear of Egypt’s political mobilizations extending into the Gulf. Activists and opposition politicians constantly use and deploy symbols and rhetoric from the Egyptian revolution. Mubarak's ouster helped generated popular opposition against Kuwait’s former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah in 2011. 

For Kuwait, arresting and deporting Egyptians for engaging in the politics of their country is a stand against opposing Egypt’s military regime. Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry tried to avoid commenting on events until Mubarak had stepped down. During the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Mohammed Morsi’s year as president, Kuwait’s rulers were uninterested in extending support to Egypt. Only after the coup did Kuwait step forward to offer $4 billion in aid, which was widely celebrated by the media in both countries. Since July, Kuwaitis have heatedly debated the coup in Egypt, with regime loyalists and liberals supporting the army while Islamists and opposition supporters continue to stand by Morsi. This political division was exacerbated by the cabinet’s decision to aid the Sisi-backed government.

One Kuwaiti citizen challenged the assistance, bringing a lawsuit against the cabinet. Abdullah al-Kindri, a young Kuwaiti lawyer, claims that citizens should receive priority over foreign aid. He asserted that the decision to assist Egypt violates local regulations that organize aid to Arab countries through the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development. Most important, Kindri demanded that such decisions be made through parliament since its members are the elected representatives of Kuwait's citizens. In addition, citing the current situation, he contended that Kuwait should not be giving aid to Egypt while it is being ruled by a temporary and unelected regime.

The lawsuit carries political value in emphasizing the need to have foreign affairs decided by parliament and to take a stand against authoritarian regimes. The lawyer, who has been praised by a number of activists and politicians, believes governing authorities can be held accountable through the courts. At the end of January, however, the “ministers’ court” ruled that the decision to give aid to Egypt is a “sovereign decision,” which the court cannot overturn. The court’s ruling referred to article 2 of Law 23 (1990) on the judiciary that states “courts have no responsibility to look at the work of the sovereign power.” In March, an administrative court will look at the case despite the ministers’ court decision. 

The decision to offer aid to Egypt's current military regime signifies a change in Kuwaiti foreign policy. For years, Kuwait has consistently tried to avoid involvement in regional conflicts and shifts, with the exception of the 2003 Iraq War. The Bahraini revolution — during which Kuwait refused to send troops as part of the Saudi-led Peninsula Shield to repress the popular uprising — was an example of Kuwait steering clear of internal disputes in other Arab states. The decision not to participate in the oppression of another people was praised by many. It was also seen as avoiding tensions with Kuwait’s Shiite community, whose members are perceived as regime loyalists.

Since the Bahraini uprising, however, the outlook has changed among Kuwait’s rulers. The regime felt threatened throughout 2012 after mass demonstrations by youth activists and the opposition. In November 2012, after a decree changing the voting law triggered popular protests, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah delivered a speech in which he emphasized fellow Gulf states' support for him. Many Kuwaitis have recently voiced their fierce objection to the security agreement, mostly targeting political dissent, that the Gulf Cooperation Council is working to finalize.

Tracing Kuwait’s foreign policy positions in the region, particularly toward Egypt after the uprisings, reveals much about its domestic politics. The regime has clearly decided to relinquish its claim of neutrality in the region and its policy of steering clear of conflicts. Mass mobilizations and regional shifts have become major threats, pushing Gulf state rulers to unite under Saudi leadership in furthering the oppression of their nations and others, such as Egypt, to avoid political disturbances and expressions of public solidarity.