Tension between Kuwait’s political opposition and the monarchy is decades old. But the peak just before a snap parliamentary election in December 2012—marked by massive street demonstrations and an electoral boycott by opposition factions—has been unprecedented. The most recent upset is tied up in the decree of Emir Sabah IV Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah that reduced the number of votes per citizen from four to one. The constitutional court is to determine the legality of this decree and the fate of the current parliament in late spring. If the court does not overturn the electoral decree, Kuwait’s internal discord is likely to intensify.
Opposition groups accuse the emir of abusing his prerogative to issue emergency decrees, as outlined in article 71, in order to ensure a rubber-stamp parliament. The legal justification for the court case is grounded in constitutional articles 81, 79, and 66—which affirm that electoral constituencies must be “determined by law,” be produced by a sitting assembly, and require a two-thirds parliamentary approval. The only such law on the books is the 2006 ruling upheld by the court (against the emir) in September 2012, which allows each Kuwaiti four votes per person per district.
But there is an argument that the monarchy is too close to the selection of judges for the court to render an independent ruling. The five judges comprising the constitutional court are selected by the country’s Judicial Council. They, in turn, are chosen by the cabinet, which is appointed by the prime minister, who is selected by the Emir. The lack of separation between executive and judicial powers could tilt the court, however indirectly, toward supporting the decree.
The opposition is doing what it can to ensure the decree is overturned; it vows to pressure the court publicly through protest, media, and, perhaps most influentially, via Twitter. But the scattering of movements and individuals that comprise the opposition is fragmented, not necessarily by their aims but by their means. There are two main opposition umbrellas: the National Democratic Alliance, composed of “traditional” liberals and secular nationalists, and the Opposition Front, composed of the People’s Movement, Salafis, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (Arabic acronym HADAS) and the youth Civil Democratic Movement (al-haraka al-dimuqratiyya al-madaniyya, or HADAM). They diverge on ideology but all seek to create a more democratic constitutional monarchy with the same systemic changes: to establish the right to form political parties, to choose the prime minister and the cabinet democratically, and to overturn the 2012 decree. The potential for the opposition to affect these changes at the moment is slim, however; there is widespread recognition that the elections boycott was a critical error that weakened and dismantled it as a single movement.
On the other side, the monarchy has its own problems. The state is “strong” in that it possesses the power to easily stamp out large protests and detain young tweeters for unsavory comments about its way of doing things. State intelligence scatters its mubahith—conspicuously clothed in gym attire—amid the smaller gatherings that continue in parks and public squares. Curtailing free speech and protest is ultimately indicative of fear, however; division within the ruling family is a widely discussed issue and lends an impression of internal weakness. It also gives the monarchy added incentive to continue corrupt practices for loyalty-buying—the crux of public disgruntlement since Sheikh Al Sabah became emir in 2006.
But the other opposition factions are getting frustrated as well. The nation’s educated, social media-savvy, and vibrant youth population, for example, is growing cynical. Some believe that elder opposition leaders are using the youth to press the government in order to suit their own ends. Additionally, even the Kuwaitis who support the emir—generally speaking, the traditional merchant class and the Shia—feel a bit disillusioned by a monarch who has dissolved the legislature five times in six years, weakening the nation’s parliamentary tradition..
If the decree is overturned and new elections are held, opposition groups will be appeased for the time being. If not, the opposition will continue to have little formal means to do anything about it—because it has no representation in parliament. Its various factions may finally choose to put aside ego battles for the sake of the larger cause and unite again in mass protest. If this occurs, and the perfect storm for a mass uprising emerges, a regime toppling would be a distant prospect. Yet loyalty to the emirate system remains an embedded function of Kuwaiti society; insistence will be on reform of the current system—not overhaul. In any event, the course that Kuwait is on is unstable and unsustainable; it is only a matter of when and how that course will change.
Amanda Kadlec is a Fulbright Fellow in Kuwait researching youth political movements.