Musallam al-Barrack Defies Regime at Appeals Court

Musallam al-Barrack, in a potent display of his political power, was able to attend a court hearing today and avoid arrest after being granted bail on KD5000. At the court hearing, the Judge was faced with barrack’s supporters who marched on the Palace of Justice with him, as well as 35 lawyers who showed up to defend him. In the end, the judge granted bail and adjourned the trial until May 13.

Barrack is walking a fine line – in court he denied that his speech insulted the Emir, but also said that if he had another chance he would say the same thing again. His lawyer, Mohammad al-Jassem said that sending him to prison would threaten his life, and sought more time to prepare a defense along with Barrack’s other attorneys. Al-Jassem is himself an activist who has been the target of attacks and legal action by the regime, including a few months ago when he urged other Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stay out of Kuwait’s internal affairs in an open letter posted on his blog.

To this point, Barrack has been successful in his defiance of the regime to the extent that he has been able to avoid being arrested on several attepts, including two where he refused to surrender on procedural grounds and once where he avoided arrest when his home was raided. After that raid he returned to his diwaniyya later amid cheering crowds that included tribesmen who were firing automatic weapons into the air in cheering him on. Amid this atmosphere the court hearing today was destined to be a showdown. Perhaps the regime hoped that Barrack would avoid attending the hearing and that an arrest warrant could be issued, but if this was the course of action that they sought he outmanuvered them by showing up and pressuring the judge to release him.

However, it is important to recognize that Barrack has defied the regime and to this extent succeeded because he has put them in a difficult position and has a great degree of international and local support. However, in a certain sense the fact that he has been able to escape arrest at this point is a sign of the breakdown of the judiciary’s independence. The regime has until this point allowed Barrack to escape arrest, but the numerous Twitter users who have been arrested and sentenced to similar sentences have not been so lucky. It is important that every case, in addition to Barrack’s receives the same degree of attention so that these violations of the protections guaranteed in Kuwait’s constitution by the regime will be prevented from continuing.

UPDATED: Musallam al-Barrak Raises the Stakes

Update – Musallam al-Barrak’s appeal hearing has been set for April 22nd, which is next Monday. At this hearing the presiding judge has the power to suspend the implementation of Barrak’s sentence (which would drop the arrest warrant, though the case could remain) or order his arrest, which means he would be taken into custody immediately if he shows up for the hearing.

The regime appears to be sensitive to criticism from its loyalists that it is not cracking down hard enough. Perhaps ominously, the National Assembly, which was the first real parliament in the Gulf has become a forum for supporting the government’s efforts to crack down, and criticising it for not cracking down hard enough. The National Assembly issued a statement that condemned “insults” directed towards the Emir, which also supported the regime’s efforts against the opposition. Matters may come to a head next Monday depending on whether or not al-Barrak decides to attend the hearing.

Original Post - On Wednesday, former MP Musallam al-Barrak attended an impromptu rally at his diwaniyya accompanied by thousands of tribesmen firing machine guns into the air as if they were ready for battle against the regime. Three times since his sentence on Monday to five years in prison for alledgedly insulting the Emir, Barrak has evaded capture. The first two times the police went to his diwaniyya and he insisted that he would surrender to police if they produced the original arrest warrant, and he said they only had a copy. There were hundreds of his supporters present and the police decided not to risk a confrontation. Then, on Wednesday commandos were sent to raid his house, where several of his relatives were allegedly beaten. Up to 10,000 protesters responded by marching on the police station in Andalus, where they were repelled by riot police using tear gas and stun grenades. A fire was set to a vehicle belonging to the interior ministry and to a nearby market in Andalus, with several injuries reported. Following this, al-Barrak defiantly appeared again at his diwaniyya, stating once again that he was prepared to give himself up. After initially hesitating, his supporters marched towards the police station, setting off fireworks in response to the use of tear gas.

The National Assembly held a secret debate about these developments, and the interior minister has come under criticism for not cracking down harder, showing that Barrak’s actions and the regime’s perceived lack of response have angered many of the regime’s supporters. Several MPs had signalled earlier their desire to grill the Interior Minister, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Humoud Al-Sabah for his failure to crack down hard enough. It is worth noting amid these developments that one of the MPs who criticized the Interior Minister, Safa al-Hashem, has, to a degree, a vested interest in the regime’s actions, as she came in 14th the the February 2012 election, failing to win a seat by about 2500 votes. In December she benefited from the Emiri decree reducing the number of votes from four to one, and won a seat in an election that the opposition boycotted. Perhaps a troubling development of that boycott, and the opposition’s withdrawal from electoral politics is that the National Assembly has become a forum for urging government crackdowns rather than acting as a check on the executive’s power.

The opposition alledges that Barrak was not given a fair trial after his lawyers walked out after not being able to call their desired witnesses, including the Prime Minister, and denounced the verdict as political. An increasingly common sign of defiance against the regime by the opposition is the recitation of Musallam al-Barrak’s speech in October which led to his arrest in which he warned the Emir not to rule autocratically. It has been recited every night since the sentence by protesters, and was recently posted on the Ministry of Information’s web site when it was hacked on Wednesday. By doing this, opposition supporters are metaphorically “crossing the rubicon” by committing the same acts for which Barrak was arrested.

Through his actions following his sentence, Musallam al-Barrak has raised the stakes in Kuwait’s ongoing political crisis. In February 2012, in elections that have since been annulled, he received more than 30,000 votes, more than any candidate anywhere in Kuwait. By comparison, the candidate who was elected in first place in the 4th constituency in the boycotted December election received less than 3000.

In some ways, for more liberal protesters Barrak is an interesting symbol for their cause. Mona Kareem writes that although Barrak has become a symbol of the protests in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Gulf, he is in fact a conservative with political positions on women’s rights (he supported gender segregation in universities and opposed women’s suffrage) and blasphemy (he supported a law that provided for the death penalty) liberals would consider deeply troubling. In turn, this gives the regime a chance to say that its opponents are politically unpalatable to distract from its repression. Much is unclear about the future, but it is clear that as an MP, or as a political prisoner, Musallam al-Barrak is a powerful force in Kuwaiti politics.

Could Ensour Lose the Confidence Vote?

The idea has been hinted at recently that the government faces an uphill battle winning the upcoming confidence vote in parliament, but it begs the question: what if Ensour cannot garner enough support to be able to survive a confidence vote? If he loses, whether it results in another Prime Minister being appointed or in an amended policy statement, the outcome will be partly due to factors beyond his control (such as the controversial proposal to reduce electricity price subsidies), but also due to his own seeming unwillingness to deal with parliament in terms that provide the lower house with adequate respect.

On Sundaym the Prime Minister presented his first policy statement to parliamen, and it is likely to receive a cold reception as parliament prepares for a vote of confidence in his government. Several political blocs have voiced their opposition to granting the government a vote of confidence, including the Watan bloc, the Democratic Gathering Bloc, and the Islamic Centrist Party. Particularly sensitive is the issue of electricity prices, with many MPs vowing to oppose the government in this vote unless it pledges that these prices will not be increased.

Ensour has also taken steps that can be seen as high-handed, that make it much less likely that he will receive the backing of MPs. Amer Al Sabaileh writes that reports indicate that ministers were notified of their appointment to the cabinet the day before it was announced. This was after it was already made public that the new cabinet would not include any MPs. This means that the MPs were excluded, were likely not adequately consulted, and the prospective candidates to head many of the ministries were not necessarily informed of their appointments beforehand. The reason for this approach is understandable – the parliament, as has been mentioned before is very fragmented. However, if MPs are ignored by the executive branch on questions such as this then they or their successors will continue to consider themselves to be part of an institution focused on distributing resources rather than passing of legislation and exercising oversight of the executive branch. There is another possibility that should be noted though – it is possible that Ensour excluded MPs in order to obtain their support by promising them appointments to the cabinet following the confidence vote.

If Ensour loses the confidence vote then it is likely that things will return to the drawing board with either an amended policy statement or another candidate for Prime Minister. The paradox that would arise if he loses the confidence vote is that parliament would be exercising its independence from the regime, but—if electricity prices are the main issue—would be doing so because MPs favor maintaining the policies that had been implemented by the regime for the last several decades. There is also another possibility of what might happen – that the regime, seeing that Ensour could lose, might call in the “backup units” – the intelligence agencies and the royal court – to ensure that he is able to survive the vote.

Whatever the scenario – whether Ensour loses, whether he is able to win backing from MPs by appointing some of them to the cabinet, or whether he is able to win through the support of the “backup units” the outcome is not a positive one for Jordan’s reform process.

Jordan’s One (Coherent) Party Parliament

Prior to the elections in January King Abdullah said that he wanted to encourage the development of Jordan’s political parties, and has expressed hope that Jordan would have three political coalitions representing the left, right, and center. Now, almost three months later it is clear how much remains to be accomplished towards this objective. The current parliament has several political blocs, three of the largest of which are the Watan (Homeland) Bloc, the Democratic Gathering Bloc, and the Islamic Centrist Party. Of these three groups, only the Islamic Centrist Party can be considered a true political party (the Islamic Action Front is also a party but it is not in parliament as it boycotted the elections). Jordan has, in effect, a one-party parliament with the Islamic Centrist Party with about 15 MPs, with the rest of the MPs either unaffiliated or part of small groupings. It is not a one-party parliament in the sense that there is only one recognized party with all the seats, but rather a one-party parliament in the sense that only one entity represented in it can be considered a serious political party.

This has real consequences – political parties consist of members (and MPs) have bonds of loyalty that are stronger than those of parliamentary blocs, which can gain or lose members over minor issues. Supporters, who were consulted through primaries or another selection process over the choice of candidates, would thus have more of a vested interest in seeing the party’s agenda enacted (and for the government to succeed) even if individual measures were unpopular. The reason why the issue of electricity prices has become a deal-breaker for many in parliament is not just due to the unpopularity of price increases (Ensour recently said they would likely rise by 16 percent) but also because independent and tribal MPs depend for support on their ability to dispense patronage to their followers. In this case, with rural and tribal areas affected more heavily by subsidy cuts than urban areas, their willingness to maintain subsidies is a method in essence of patronage. This is not to say subsidy reductions per se are good or bad, but the subsidies are a burden on the state budget of which everyone needs to be aware.

A case study of the effects of this is the upcoming confidence vote that Ensour faces in parliament. Prior to announcing the new cabinet he decided that MPs would not be included among the initial list of ministers. This may have been a reaction to the fact that it took parliament so long to come to a consensus on the appointment of a Prime Minister, and then another lengthy period of time before a cabinet was agreed upon, but bypassing parliament cannot, in the long term, signify a healthy system of representative democracy. It also makes securing the support of parliament in a confidence vote that much more difficult – if MPs (even loyalist ones) are not trusted to be included in the cabinet, then they are much less likely to support the government even when it depends on their support in a confidence vote. Additionally, there are reports that part of the hostility directed against Ensour is due to the fact that MPs did not feel that they were consulted in the formation of the cabinet. There is also the ever-present issue of electricity prices which the three parliamentary blocs say is a deal-breaker if Ensour wants to receive their support.

Consequently, with Ensour saying that he is not going to rely on the support of regime institutions such as the royal palace or the intelligence services (which are also referred to as the “backup units”), he faces a difficult challenge in winning the necessary degree of support to be able to win a confidence vote. Particularly in a parliament that is elected under a system designed to favor independent and tribal candidates, despite the fact that these are the most likely MPs to oppose measures such as subsidy reductions.

Ultimately the present situation is a consequence of the long-term policies that favor independent candidates, who won a majority in the most recent elections. These candidates depend for support on their ability to dispense patronage, particularly to areas that are dependent on the state particularly with regards to employment. The consequence is that political and economic reforms become dichotomous – the economic reforms require “backup units” to implement because MPs will never agree to them democratically. Over the long term, the challenge this poses to the reform process is immense.

Is Kuwait’s Anti-Expat Momentum Stalling

It seems that after a series of measures targeting expats were introduced In Kuwait that the momentum behind them may be stalling. On Wednesday, the National Assembly rejected a proposal to charge expats the full price for fuel, which would then be dispensed to Kuwaitis with a ration card. Other components of the measure would have required the deportation of expats who commit “grave violations” of traffic laws.

The vote in the National Assembly was decisive, with over 30 members voting against it including government officials who are ex-officio members, while 8 MPs voted in favor of it. It seems then that the momentum that has been targeted against expats has stalled for the time being. Measures that have been proposed recently such as fixed residency periods that would require them to leave the country after a certain period of time as well as nationality quotas have foundered due to the fact that after the emotion has left the picture they turn out to be detrimental to the country. In particular, if skilled workers such as teachers have been in the country for ten years should they then be forced to leave?

It is important to recognize of course that part of the sentiment that is behind measures like this is intended to increase the job opportunities for Kuwait’s citizens. However, the issue is that expats have recently been targeted with proposals to such an extent that recently it felt like hardly a day went by without the introduction of another one. There are indeed still some under consideration such as the proposal to effectively segregate health clinics by permitting expatriates to attend them in non-emergency situations only in afternoon hours. However, the rejection by the National Assembly of the proposal to charge Kuwaiti citizens different fuel prices indicates that the momentum may be shifting on this issue.

At the end of the day, Kuwait has a problem with its citizens relying on guaranteed state employment (the source of income for over 90 percent of them). However, the decisions that have recently been taken against expats have appeared intended not at ultimatley opening jobs for Kuwait’s citizens but instead aimed at stirring up anti-expat sentiment to deflect attention from the government’s failings.

Jordan’s New Cabinet: 18 ministers, No MPs

The composition of Jordan’s new cabinet was just announced, more than two months after the election. It consists of 19 members including Prime Minister Ensour, none of whom are Members of Parliament, though Ensour has said he would seek to include MPs in the cabinet in the next several months. Of the members of the outgoing cabinet, four of them retained their posts. The list of new Cabinet Ministers is as follows:

  1. Prime Minister and Defence: Abdullah Ensour
  2. Interior and Municipal Affairs: Hussein Majali (new, merged portfolio)
  3. Justice and Prime Ministry Affairs: Ahmad Ziadat (new, merged portfolio)
  4. Foreign Affairs: Nasser Judeh (unchanged)
  5. Trade, Industry, Communications, and Supply: Hatem Halawani (unchanged, merged portfolios)
  6. Finance: Ummaya Tukan (new)
  7. Planning, Tourism, and Antiquities: Ibrahim Saif (new)
  8. Education: Mohammad Wahash (new)
  9. Higher Education and Scientific Research: Amin Mahmud (new)
  10. Water and Agriculture: Hazem Nasser (new, merged portfolio)
  11. Information, Political Development and Parliamentary Affairs: Mohammad Momani (new, merged portfolios)
  12. Health and the Environment: Mjalli Mheilan (new, merged portfolio)
  13. Social Development: Reem Abu Hassan (new)
  14. Housing and Public Works: Walid Masri (new)
  15. Energy: Malek Kabariti (new)
  16. Labour and Transport: Nidal Qatamin (unchanged, merged portfolio)
  17. Islamic Affairs and Awqaf: Mohammad Qudah (new)
  18. Culture: Barakat Awajan (new)
  19. Public Sector Development: Khleif Khawaldeh (unchanged)

The list of Ministers includes nine newcomers and five who have previously served as Ministers, and among the newcomers is one woman, Reem Abu Hassan, who will be serving as Minister of Social Development. The most noteworthy holdover from the previous government is Nasser Judeh, who gains an additional responsiblity for Expatriate Affairs in addition to Foreign Affairs.

This list of cabinet ministers includes many changes in the individuals who are serving in the government but it seems much less likely that it will lead to corresponding changes in policy. Despite the number of changes, many of them, despite their status as first-time ministers have served in other posts within the government. Many of them have served in think tanks, some of which were affiliated with the Jordanian government although others served at think tanks that were independent.

For example, Interior Minister Awad Khliefat (who had been mentioned as a candidate for PM following the election in addition to Ensour) was replaced by Public Security Department Director Hussein Majali. Majali was director of the Public Security Department during protests against the fuel prices, and while those protests were ongoing claimed that two Syrian nationals had been paid to protest to increase the size of crowds. The payments, he said were made by a political party, which does not show an attitude that is favorable to the parties that the government says it wants to encourage.

Finance Minister Ummaya Tukan is another appointee who cannot be considered a newcomer after having served as head of the Central Bank of Jordan from 2001 to 2010. Ibrahim Saif, the new Minister of Planning is one of the more interesting additions, becoming a Minister after several years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author or coauthor of numerous publications related to the Jordanian economy.

Malik Kabariti will become Minister for Energy, a crucial portfolio as the government considers steps that might be taken regarding electricity prices. Prior to his appointment to the cabinet he was Chairman of the Board at the National Electric Power Company

Interestingly, Reem Abu Hassan, the women’s right’s activist who is the only woman appointed to the cabinet is the daughter-in-law of Ahmed Obeidat, the head of the National Front for Reform, as she is married to his son Thamer. Prior to her appointment she was head of the National Council for Family Affairs, a government-supported think tank.

Mohamed Momani is another Minister who comes from an academic or think tank background, as he is a media figure and academic who joins the cabinet from the Jordan Media Institute, which offers an MA program in journalism. Barakat Ojwan joins the cabinet from private practice as a physician and activist in Maan. His involvement in the cabinet begs an interesting question – given that the cabinet excludes MPs currently does this mean that he would have been excluded as well had he won a national list seat that he ended up losing?

The Ministry of Supplies (under incumbent Minister Hatem Hawalani) was brought back under the new cabinet, and other changes included dividing Education with Higher Education, and combining Higher Education with Scientific Research

The new government faces many challenges, including those such as electricity prices that were left over by the previous government, which may have been one issue that caused the process of making the current cabinet to take such a long time. The way that it addresses these challenges will set a precedent for the future of both the policies that are implemented in Jordan and the way future governments are formed. The process of selecting a cabinet took more than two months this time. Next election, it would be extremely damaging to the Jordanian reform process if these types of delays were to happen again.