Kuwait’s Opposition: Who Are They?

With a threat to boycott forthcoming elections and increasingly well-attended popular demonstrations, Kuwait’s opposition is optimistic it can bring about genuine change in the Gulf nation. Haifa Zaaiter examines the Islamist, popularist and liberal movements that make up Kuwait’s diverse opposition.

Recently, discussion concerning the structure of the Kuwaiti opposition has raged alongside the outburst of a political crisis, all this against the backdrop of the issuance of a decree to change the election law.

As the authorities insisted on not going back on this decree, the opposition increased its opposition to changing the law. The opposition movement escalated, and — in contrast to the norm — has begun witnessing violent confrontations with the security forces.

Questions regarding the structure of the opposition forces carry doubts regarding the agenda of this opposition, which seems to be fragmenting more and more. At the same time, there is optimism (as there is with every opposition) that they will be able to prevent the regime from [maintaining] a monopoly over rule.

The "phenomenon" of an opposition in Kuwait has always been a "special characteristic" of the country, which Kuwaitis are very proud of, particularly within the Gulf region. The opposition has successfully reserved for itself a large segment of the general political scene. From here, it is necessary to further examine the structure of the Kuwaiti opposition, to avoid either overestimating or underestimating it.

The Kuwaiti opposition consists of all different spectrums of society. It should be noted that the majority of the 2012 National Assembly — which was dissolved after the reinstatement of the 2009 assembly — was from the opposition. While speaking to As-Safir, official leadership sources elaborated on the structure of the opposition:

1. Islamic Parties

The Islamic Constitutional Movement — known by its Arabic acronym, Hadas — is the largest of the opposition forces. It is considered a facade for the Muslim Brotherhood, and emerged after the Iraqi army withdrew from Kuwait. This group is characterized as being highly organized, and has its hands on important economic institutions and charities throughout the country.

Hadas maintains a presence in the Coalition of Universities, the teachers' association, trade unions, ministries, the Islamic Zakat center and the Eslah society. Moreover, it possesses a number of effective media outlets. The secretary general of the movement is Nasser al-Sane, and the movement's representatives in the 2012 assembly were Osama Issa Shaheen, Jamaan Herbish, Hamad al-Matr, Mohammad Dalal and Falah al-Sawag al-Azami — all of which are currently prominent opposition figures.

This week, Hadas confirmed that it was committed to the election boycott, and threatened to dismiss from the movement any member who participates in the elections.

The Salafist Movement: When Salafists first emerged in Kuwait they were not organized, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood. Their work and activities were more spontaneous than institutional. The Salafists’ goals were exclusively related to preaching, because at the time they were not interested in politics or student movements. In the early 1980s, [an NGO named] the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS) was formed to be an official facade for the work of the Salafists, in the same way that the Eslah Society was affiliated with the Brotherhood.

RIHS has close ties with Saudi scholars concerning fatwas and developing a Salafist consciousness among its supporters. The Salafists participated for the first time in the fifth National Assembly elections held in February of 1981, running two of their leaders: Jassim al-Aoun and Khalid Sultan.

The Salafist trend comprises:

A. The Salafist Coalition, which is the largest of the Salafist movements: It is aligned with the RIHS, even though the latter refuses to officially link itself to the coalition, since Kuwaiti law prohibits non-profit organizations from interfering in politics or participating in elections.

Salafists established the coalition after the liberation of Kuwait in 1992, to be the political forefront of the RIHS. As an alternative to political parties, the Salafist Coalition calls for the launch of a "moderate and integrated political system, where the National Assembly has the ability to give prior approval for commissioning a prime minister, and selects cabinet members." However, the coalition did not specify the nature of this system, including its axes, implementation mechanisms and functions.

B. The Salafist Movement: This movement was founded in 1996 after splits within the Salafist Coalition as a result of differences among religious scholars regarding the use of foreign forces to liberate Kuwait. One of the most prominent founders of this movement is Hamid al-Ali — the movement's current secretary general and the head of the al-Mutairi tribe. Moreover, prominent opposition member and MP Waleed al-Tabtabai is considered to be close to this movement.

C. The Umma Party: This party was founded in 2005 as the political arm of the Salafist Movement. It was the first political party in Kuwait and the Gulf. The establishment of this party violated Kuwaiti law, and therefore the government confronted the party and referred its founders to prosecution, on charges of seeking to change the system of government. This party participated in the 2008 elections, with 12 members running as candidates. However, none of them were successful. The party then decided to boycott elections until the establishment of a popular government.

D. National Principles Assembly: This assembly, which is Salafist oriented, emerged in late 2003 and seeks to "defend the principles and interests of the nation, and calls on people to adhere to the Koran and the Sunnah." This movement does not have popular ideological bases with a clear vision, yet it still enjoys the support of a wide segment of the populace, as a result of the moral component of the issues it adopts.

2. Populist currents

A. The Liberal Movement: Until the mid 1970s, Kuwaitis never distinguished themselves from one another on a sectarian basis. For this reason, the Liberal Movement dominated the local political scene during the early stages of Kuwait's democracy experiment, as it was ideologically compatible to the leanings of the vast majority of Kuwaiti citizens.

This has changed in the past 20 years, as religious movements now dominate public opinion. Liberal theorists attribute this decline in mainstream popularity to two primary reasons.

The first is what they called the country's alliance with religious parties, while the second is the "naturalization policy" that has led to changes in the country's demographic composition. Furthermore, there is a third reason, which blames the movement’s leaders and officials for this decline.

Today, supporters of this movement — including the enthusiastic youth cadres — enjoy the opportunity to actively participate in public affairs.

B. The Kuwaiti Democratic Forum: This party has become known for its position that it "was established as a necessity required for the development of the Kuwaiti national democratic movement.”

This party's goals stem from deep national interests, including reinforcing Kuwait's national independence, as well as protecting the country's territory and national sovereignty. Yesterday [Nov. 6], the party issued a statement in which it confirmed that it would adhere to the decision to completely boycott the upcoming elections, and stressed that everyone had the right to peacefully make demands, as was guaranteed by the constitution.

The party asked political leaders to defuse the crisis by re-examining the entire issue, and appealing to its leaders and supporters to rally around its decisions. The party stressed the need to implement the measures provided for in the regulations, concerning any platform member that is running in the elections.

C. National Democratic Alliance: This alliance includes a number of Arabists and nationalists who embrace liberal arguments. Their demands focus on political, social and economic openness. Since the founding of the alliance, disputes between its members have grown, which resulted in a number of prominent names withdrawing from the alliance. Thus, the alliance failed to achieve its main objective, which was uniting national democratic action in the Kuwaiti political scene and reinforcing the liberal ranks.

D. The Progressive Kuwaiti Movement: This is an old movement that participated in the founding of the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum. While it has worked secretly to suspend the constitution, in recent years the party felt that it needed to announce its presence, according to Coordinator General Ahmed al-Dean. Dean described the movement as an independent party that believes that political, economic and social progress is necessary.

At this stage, the Liberal Movement, the Kuwaiti Democratic Platform and the National Democratic Alliance are working together closely. They coordinate their activities on the ground and have released a joint statement calling for a complete boycott of the upcoming elections.

3. Independents

This category includes a number of former MPs, social activists and members of tribes, as well as independent youth groups that carry out a youth movement that is not aligned with any party or specific side. This includes MP Musallem al-Barrak, who is one of the most prominent faces among the opposition.

Yesterday [Nov. 6], he said that he does not adhere to any party, nor is he subject to the dictates of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Kuwaitis refer to him as the "conscience of the nation." Other members of this movement include MP Waleed al-Tabtabai — who despite the fact that he was close to the Salafists, the latter had several reservations regarding him, Barrak and other MPs for a period of time — Faisal Muslim — a former MP and independent Islamist — National Assembly Speaker Ahmed al-Sadoun, former Popular Action Bloc MP Ali al-Daqbasi, former MP Mubarak al-Wallan, Khalid al-Tahous and others.

Mohammed Dalal, an MP aligned with Hadas in the 2012 National Assembly and currently a prominent opposition member, provided approximate percentages regarding the distribution of the opposition. He told As-Safir that the opposition consists of approximately 40% Islamists and 30% from the populist current, and the rest is made up by independents and tribe members.

Opposition forces … in other terms

Some observers, including the Kuwaiti writer and businessman Ahmed al-Sarraf, divide the opposition forces into four categories: the engine, the beneficiary, the fuel and the moral support.

Today, the engine and the beneficiary are the religious parties, which enjoy financial and institutional potential that is unmatched. The tribes are the fuel, and the moral support is provided by the entire spectrum of society. While speaking to As-Safir, Sarraf said that religious parties today — which will reap the benefits of this movement — are trying to take advantage of charismatic figures within the opposition. They are supporting them and promoting them during this interim cooperative phase.

According to Sarraf, the opposition today represents all segments of society, including the tribes, Shiites, nationalists, former-nationalists and Islamists. However, this does not mean that there is one goal in common. Moreover, he believes that the opposition is justified, since its demands are legitimate and should be heard. However, at the same time he feels that in some ways the movement isn't justified, for if they succeeded in achieving their goals Kuwait would just replace one corrupt government with another that is more corrupt.

Sarraf's statements come amid fears that the Islamic movement will extend its influence in Kuwait, threatening "privatization" and all previous achievements. These statements also come in the context of accusations leveled against the opposition, claiming that it is not involved with institutions possessing development programs, nor political, economic or civil projects. People have also accused the opposition of being unable to put forth solutions from the perspective of the state and the executive branch.

Sarraf noted that the first configuration of an opposition in Kuwait dates back to 1920, and at the time it was linked to merchants and businessmen who were paying taxes. They remained the basis of the opposition until 1961. After that, Kuwait experienced a period of relative calm, until the beginning of the nationalist tide, when a political opposition appeared for the first time — consisting of nationalists, socialists and some communists — who demanded the right to participate in governance.

Yet what is the future of this opposition? The answer to this question lies in the coming days, at a time when the opposition asserts that the movement will not stop.

They are preparing for large demonstrations on "Constitution Day," which falls on the 11th of this month. According to opposition supporters, the momentum of the movement will not decrease, despite the reduced number of demonstrations recently.

[They attributed this decrease in demonstrations] to the authorities making their best efforts to crack down on opponents. In this context, Dalal said that the authorities have committed all types of harassment and media deception in the recent period, pointing out that the regime's proposal is not logical. The one-man one-vote system — which is currently approved — is a distorted version of the global system, because it does not allow for the development of parties or lists. The awaited law should be a replica of the Jordanian [electoral] system.

In contrast, the authorities and those who support them insist on upholding the law to change the electoral system. They accuse the opposition of looking out its own special interests, and claim that the new regime is the most democratic. They also believe that the opposition's momentum will decrease. Therefore, the coming days carry big hopes of fewer headaches. 

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