Those who live through dramatic democratic transitions, whether in Spain, Poland, or the Philippines, often describe a similar sequence of feelings—first wisps of hope, then tremendous uncertainty followed by elation during the transition itself, concluding with the slow disillusionment that the extraordinary birth of democracy leads to a mundane day-to-day politics in which various individuals and groups work the system to realize their short-term interests.

Residents of the Arab world have been denied this set of experiences. But in a sense, Kuwaitis have been living through a very drawn out version of a democratic transition. And they have experienced some of the emotions described above, but in an odd sequence.

Kuwaitis have seen their parliament grow from a debating society to a powerful political structure; they have seen matters formerly whispered of in private gradually work their way into daily newspapers; they have seen the franchise be granted to new groups and elections become more competitive.  But because the changes have been gradual and remain incomplete, Kuwaitis have missed the drama and the elation of a democratic breakthrough. Their country today is not fully democratic; their transition has already taken more than a generation; and the outcome is still very much in doubt.

But despite these differences with the dramatic democratizers, the Kuwaiti experience is not devoid of some familiar elements from other transitions.  Kuwaitis today are fully and simultaneously feeling what their counterparts experienced separately at the beginning and the end of the process--uncertainty and disillusionment that Spaniards felt separately in the 1970s and 1980s and that Poles passed through in a sequence that began in the 1980s and ended in the 1990s.

Red Lines into Amber Lights

The Kuwaiti path has not only been slow and incomplete; it has also been far short of steady.  While Kuwaiti democracy has grown in recent years, in the 1970s and 1980s, Kuwaiti politics actually moved in the opposite direction, against democracy.

The country has always prided itself on a political history in which the ruling family consulted with the population rather than ruling in an unrestrained manner.  This arrangement was buttressed by social practices (most notably the diwaniyya, a traditional gathering place for Kuwaiti men) that allow for open discussion of political issues.

This arrangement was formalized in the country’s 1962 constitution—a document reflecting royal sponsorship, Egyptian legal advice, and popular participation.  The constitution, unamended since it was issued, provided for an elected parliament that had some real authority. But as with any written constitution, the practical meaning of the document evolved over time and was based not simply on the formal text but also on unwritten conventions. In Kuwait, these unwritten rules generally kept the parliament in check.  When that was not enough, the country’s rulers brought new groups in to the political process to balance against the troublesome voters in the country’s core (ironically, it is just such new groups that have helped lead to the current fracturing of the country’s political system).

But bringing in new voters was not enough. After a series of tussles with feisty parliamentarians, some of whom seemed to wish to use their constitutional tools as fully as possible, the country’s amir suspended the parliament twice—once in 1976 and once in 1986. During those suspensions, Kuwait was ruled like other Gulf monarchies—by an unaccountable ruling family.  Popular pressure to restore the parliament in 1989 provoked only an attempt to revise the constitution and replace the parliament with a more pliant assembly.

The slow tide against democracy was reversed completely in the 1990s. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the need for national unity resulted in an agreement between the ruling family and leading Kuwaitis to restore the constitution and the parliament after the country’s liberation.  In the years after the invasion, the United States (which became the guarantor of Kuwaiti security) pressed the restoration of democracy.  Thus the 1990 agreement between royals and commoners was honored, and Kuwait’s parliament resumed life in 1992 with renewed vigor.  Since that time, Kuwaitis have seen their political life slowly encroach on sacrosanct areas.

Residents of various Arab societies often speak of the “red lines” in their political systems—areas where freedom of speech and action end and where transgressors face harsh measures. Such red lines certainly existed in the past in Kuwait, but over the past two decades they have been slowly transformed into “amber lights”—areas where Kuwaitis tread with caution perhaps, but are no longer intimidated.  And that has contributed to the growing sense of uncertainty in Kuwait today.

The Kuwaiti press, formerly the preserve of a few well-established dailies, is now flowering as press restrictions have fallen. Political parties, despite their lack of legal recognition, operate openly. Tribes defy the law and openly hold primaries before parliamentary elections. Kuwaitis vigorously debate all kinds of public issues—even those that used to be considered too sensitive for print. Sectarian divisions, for instance, are discussed more openly. Social problems are aired extensively.

But most remarkable, perhaps, has been the open discussion of royal family politics.  Not only do politicians speak openly of the existence of divisions in the royal family, they will sometimes launch criticisms of specific family members by name.  The most remarkable red line collapsed earlier this year when leading members of the family themselves rushed to leak the contents of a closed family discussion to the press.

Kuwaitis talk a lot, but the changes are about more than mere words. The parliament has increasingly shown itself willing to take advantage of the opening political atmosphere to act against prominent royals—beginning carefully in the 1990s with a quiet set of moves against specific members, a demand to hold a leading minister suspected of monumental embezzlement legally accountable, and a polite but firm request to separate the posts of prime minister and crown prince.  Most of these efforts showed some success, eventually even the separation of the posts of premier and crown prince.

But in recent years parliamentarians have pushed still further.  They have moved against leading royals and even attempted on numerous occasions to subject the prime minister himself to formal parliamentary questioning—a right they theoretically have but have never exercised. The ruling family’s steps to prevent such a move are now at the center of Kuwait’s political crisis. Such royal steps have ranged from admonitions (“Remember that this is your future amir!” the current amir is supposed to have warned, himself transgressing a boundary by implying that he had determined the chain of succession beyond the current crown prince) to allowing rumors to fly that parliament will be suspended.

Dizziness and Disorientation

Indeed, the red lines limiting democracy are not the only ones to have fallen. A red line that has emerged since 1992—that the constitution will be followed—is itself in danger. The prospect of a third suspension of the parliament is openly discussed and may have come close to realization earlier this year.  Kuwaitis speak now of an “unconstitutional dissolution” almost as if it is a normal constitutional option—and there are apparently strong voices in the ruling family arguing for using the tool they had earlier appeared to renounce.  Thus far, the current amir has only dissolved the parliament constitutionally (by calling for immediate new elections) but he has done so with such frequency that Kuwaitis are driven dizzy by the constant campaigning.

Inn fact, Kuwaitis increasingly speak of the disintegration of red lines as less exhilarating than thoroughly disorienting.  What are the rules governing politics?  It is not the case that all restraints have been dropped—organizers of tribal primaries have been arrested; outspoken politicians have been hauled in for questioning; and the threat of parliamentary suspension suggests that far more extensive measures might be taken.

At heart of the sense of confusion is the growing haziness of boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. And just is troubling is the resulting paralysis—with so many leaders and groups pursuing their demands so forcefully, it seems that everyone in Kuwait has not merely a voice but a veto.  Economic reform, vital legislation, and major projects of all sorts are put on hold as long as one influential actor seeks to block or delay.  Kuwaiti politics seems to be all motion and no movement.

The Kuwaiti Experiment in Trouble?

Kuwaiti democracy is threatened not directly by the gradual erosion of political certainty—democracy is all about uncertainty, after all—but by the disillusionment this has caused. And perhaps mot notable is the declining democratic determination of two critical supporters of Kuwaiti democracy—the business community and the United States.

The traditional business elite, the backbone of the constitutional order in a previous generation, has watched as the parliament has paralyzed decision making and become the preserve of tribal and neighborhood deputies more interested in securing benefits for their constituents than in transforming Kuwait into an international economic powerhouse.  And the traditional business elite’s economic position in Kuwait has also declined in relative terms, as new economic actors have entered the scene.

The United States has followed a stranger pattern.  In the 1990s, at a time when it payed only lip service to the idea of democracy elsewhere in the Arab world, American support for Kuwaiti democracy was critical. But under the leadership of George W. Bush, when the United States elevated democracy to the defining element of its declared policy, American priorities in Kuwait turned sharply in the opposite direction.

The American relationship with Kuwait was important—but primarily as a means for moving equipment and troops into and out of Iraq. Internal Kuwaiti developments were of secondary interest. As the parliament seemed to become a place where Islamists of various stripes operated freely, it was viewed as a less friendly institution in official American eyes. To be sure, the fact that Kuwaiti women were granted full political rights attracted American attention—but the fact that all Kuwaitis, male and female alike, were in danger of losing all of their political rights excited no mention. There may be a slight shift under the Obama administration—the current US ambassador did express her hope that Kuwaitis would resolve their problems thorough constitutional means—but the United States is both weaker and more distracted than it was a decade ago.

Today’s election will not resolve Kuwait’s political impasse any more than the last year’s election did. The parliament that is seated will see some familiar faces gone and some new figures taking their place. But the basic dynamics of the parliament—a body that is fractured among various tendencies, jealous of its authority but unsure how to use it, given to grandstanding, not particularly respectful of royalty, and protective of constituent interests—will not likely change.

Unconstitutional dissolution of the parliament may solve some of these problems—for a short time.  It may be greeted by relief in some quarters and resignation in others. But Kuwaiti society is too highly politicized and Kuwaiti citizens have too strong a sense of ownership over their political system for any quiescence to be more than short lived.

The other path for Kuwait—fixing the flaws in democracy—is certainly sounder over the long term. But it will not be easy. It will involve the royal family learning to accept being questioned, parliamentarians learning to work together, electoral engineers designing a system that rewards tribalism less, and various groups in Kuwaiti society accepting that having a voice does not mean possessing a veto.  That will require some fundamental constitutional reform—and the irony is that such reform cannot occur without the leadership of the same political leaders who have proven so adept at bringing the current political system into a state of crisis and paralysis.