By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
It's been noted that the monarchs of the Mideast have weathered the first year of the Arab revolts better than leaders of republics. But recent debate in Kuwait raises questions about year two.
The immediate cause for discussion is the election earlier this month in which Islamist-leaning candidates captured a majority of the seats in a reconstituted parliament, which has limited powers under the rule of Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah. These forces previously commanded 20 of 50 seats and now have 34.
On the eve of the parliament's first meeting this week, commentators anticipated a clash between Al-Sabah's government and the newly elected assembly. Parliament can initiate legislation and can question and conduct a vote of no-confidence on individual cabinet members, but the government ministers are named by a prime minister who is appointed by the Emir, and the monarch has the last word on most matters.
Columnist Khairallah Khairallah of Kuwait's Al-Rai al-Aam newspaper believes many Kuwaitis are mobilized to change the very nature of the country's governance. Using the delicate terms favored by journalists living under authoritarian regimes, he wrote:
“For the first time in history, there is a majority in the parliament that might propose a project deemed by the ruling elite to be one that contradicts its jurisdictions," by which he meant its interests.
Khairallah reviewed the turbulent last year in Kuwaiti political life, including the storming of parliament by legislators and their supporters last November and allegations of widespread corruption within the government and among legislators close to the ruling family. He wrote, "Members of Parliament believe it is now time to modify the constitution and take the country toward a new regime built on new balances," by which he meant, presumably, limitations on the role of the royals and greater power for elected officials.
Khairallah, however, is no reformist, at least when it comes to Kuwait. He is against such a change, which he said would represent "a real coup in favor of a direction that takes Kuwait into the unknown." That was not where the columnist wants to go. Sounding like regime apologists everywhere, Khairallah concluded: “Kuwait does not need all this political movement, which leads to nothing but chaos and is an expression of the shortsightedness of many. Kuwait needs calm and vision.”
Pointedly rejecting this analysis, columnist Fahd Rashed al-Muteiri of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida noted that “some editorials featured in our local newspapers” had predicted Kuwait would not be touched by the Arab revolts. “I can totally understand the fear of change by people who always benefitted from the status quo,” he said. But the spirit of the Arab rebellions was strong and had arrived in Kuwait. As he described its appeal:
First, there is the youth element and its major role in mobilizing public opinion and offering heroic sacrifice worthy of praise. Second, there are political slogans that can be summed up by the word 'leave!' Third, there is overwhelming popular action that has led and is still leading to the toppling of individuals who do not represent the popular will.
Criticizing supporters of the ruling family who argue that democracy has long been present in Kuwait through the directly elected parliament, Muteiri said sharply, "A political regime that does not allow the people to topple their government via the ballot box cannot be described as democratic.”
Given the importance he attaches to accountable government, Muteiri was critical of the new parliament's agenda for change. The Islamists' priority is to demand a revision of Article Two of Kuwait's constitution in order to make sharia, or Islamic law, "the principal source for legislation." As it stands, the article states that Islamic law is one source for legislation. Muteiri wrote:
The ground is indeed fertile, not for the amendment of Article Two of the constitution, but to develop our political system through the expansion of popular participation in power.
Columnist Walid al-Rujeib of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai added that the parliamentary winners were falsely assuming they'd been given a mandate to Islamize the country. He wrote:
There is a rush to analyze the election results and consider them reflective of a return to Islam, as though the population had been apostates and had distanced themselves from Islam.
The Islamists, he wrote, are in "ecstasy, which they believe will last forever"; it makes them "believe they will continue to hold power infinitely." Rujeib wrote that Kuwait was unlikely to take either a radical turn toward Islam or toward curtailing the monarchy. This is because, he argued, the country is ultimately split not by doctrinal, sectarian or factional divisions, but by even deeper class distinctions that will ensure the perpetration of the status quo, perhaps with minor modifications.
This even affects the Islamists' wish to change Article Two of the constitution,” he asserted, since enforcing a stricter version of sharia would undermine much of Kuwait’s banking system, which does not comply with the Islamic prohibition on interest, among other things. Ultimately, he wrote, the “Islamist capitalists” will probably join with other capitalists “to secure the interests of their class."
The recent experience of other states in the region demonstrates, however, that just as the direction and pace of change is no longer exclusively within the control of autocrats, neither is it necessarily in the hands of any other elite.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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