Update 2: Kuwait’s Constitution: A Contested Anniversary

Update 2 (November 11th, 7:45pm): The turnout for protests in Kuwait was large, with at least 50,000 coming out to oppose the electoral law on the anniversary of the constitution, according to those who were there.

Perhaps in an attempt to distract from the protest held on the anniversary, the fireworks display organized by the government to celebrate the anniversary set a Guinness World Record for the largest fireworks display.

Update 1 (November 10th): The Emir gave a speech today in which he commemorated the constitution. He said that it was a “robust guarantee of the viability of the state and the vivacity of the society.” These words are just that – words – and they have little meaning coming from the Emir who provoked the current demonstrations by issuing a decree unilaterally changing the way that elections are held.

This Sunday, November 11th, 2012 is the fiftieth anniversary of Kuwait’s constitution, which was issued by a decree from then-Emir . The opposition is planning to hold a joint demonstration on the anniversary to protest the Emir’s decree changing the electoral law. By holding a demonstration on the anniversary of the constitution the opposition is making a bold statement that the anniversary should be an occasion to protest the government’s actions that threaten the relative freedom that exists in Kuwait now. As of yet, these rallies have not called for radial change or the overthrow of the regime, but as we have mentioned before, if the regime continues responding to peaceful rallies with stun grenades and tear gas it is questionable how long this will remain the case.

The government has also sought to invoke the constitution in defense of its actions, and prominent figures have issued statements praising the constitution even as the government takes steps to undermine its true meaning. The Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah said recently - at a meeting with the heads of the Army, police, and national guard – that “We are required today to choose between the state of law and constitution… or the path to chaos and undermining constitutional authority.” Yet what is undermining constitutional authority really? The people demanding real reform and democratization? Or a regime which is attempting to change the entire electoral process through a single decree by the Emir?

The National Assembly, (mind you, the same national assembly which was reconvened after the one elected in February was undemocratically dissolved) has for its part announced it plans to hold exhibits next week in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the constitution. Other figures within the government have spoken up as well. In an article in Kuwait Times, Sheikh Sabah Jaber Al-Ali Al-Sabah, Director General of the Ports Authoritypraised the constitution, saying – even as the government has vowed to crack down on protests – that “Kuwaitis, since their early history, have been embracing consultation, democracy and popular participation as principle for life and joint action.” This statement is true – they have been embracing the constitution, democracy, and popular participation as principles for life and joint action. Indeed, it’s the government that’s been resisting these principles, both recently and indeed in the past.

The government’s willingness to undermine the constitution when it sees fit is not new, nor are the fundamentally undemocratic elements of the way Kuwait is goverened. In 1976 and 1986 the National Assembly was suspended, and the second time was restored after a determined pro-democracy movement and the experience of the Iraqi occupation, which unified the Kuwaiti people in resistance to the occupiers, and parliament was restored after the 1992 elections.

Interestingly, this isn’t even the first time that the government has tried to manipulate the electoral process by changing the way that elections are held. In 1980 the government did something similar to what the Emir’s decree did recently – it increased the number of districts from 10 to 50, with each district electing one member instead of five.

What is most remarkable and what deserves the greatest recognition on the anniversary on Sunday is the enduring democratic spirit of the Kuwaiti people. They have proven time and again their willingness to resist attempts by the government to limit their rights and manipulate the rules to its advantage. No doubt that spirit will be on display once again as the people come together this Sunday to demand reform and true democracy.

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