Musallam al-Barrak and the Competing Arenas of Kuwaiti Politics

Today, Musallam al-Barrak is scheduled to return to court for his appeal against a five-year prison sentence he received for allegedly insulting the Emir. Whatever the court rules today, the ruling will highlight the increasingly bisected nature of Kuwaiti politics between the regime-dominated political system and the opposition’s arena of popular mobilization.

Today’s hearing was scheduled on April 22nd, when Barrak appeared in court and was granted bail by the judge. Following the judge’s decision to grant him bail, thousands of his supporters gathered in the seuare next to the main prison in Salibiya region and lifted him onto their shoulders in an impromptu parade. Barrack said that it was his supporters who had him released after the hearing rather than his bail payment. He feels, not without justification given the fate of many other opposition supporters, that he must rely on public opinion to protect him from the regime’s crackdown on dissent. Last year’s nullified election in February demonstrated the extent of his backing as he received more votes than any other candidate (he boycotted the December election).

During the week between his sentencing on April 15th and his court appearance on April 22nd, Barrack repeatedly insisted that he would comply with the law and surrender when he saw a copy of the original arrest warrant, which he insisted police did not have. He evaded several attempts to arrest him, including a raid on his home (he was not there at the time), which he called a “cowardly action” by the government, which provoked a crowd of about 10,000 protesters to clash with riot police outside of a police station. He denied that his comments from an October rally that the Emir must not rule autocratically were an insult, and his supporters took to repeating his words as a show of solidarity. He insisted publicly that he would comply with the court’s rulings but his actions prior to the court hearing on April 22nd were those of a political figure confident of popular backing and intent on defiance.

The regime’s actions in the recent political crisis, including regarding the case of Barrak appear to be based on the calculation that these protests do not pose a fundamental threat to overthrow the regime. The regime seems also to be attempting to take advantage of the dominance of the political system that the opposition yielded to it by boycotting the election in December.

The stage was set when the February 2012 election resulted in the election of a parliament with a majority of opposition MPs, which meant that the regime could expect more opposition from parliament, including efforts to grill ministers. A series of events following the election took place which suggested that the regime may have been attempting to regain by decree what it lost at the ballot box. Over the summer a court ruling dissolved the parliament elected in February 2012 and reinstated the one elected in 2009. Subsequently, the regime attempted to have the courts overturn the 2006 electoral law, and when this failed, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, issued a decree seen to favor the regime by reducing the number of votes Kuwaitis could cast from four to one, in a decree seen to favor the regime. This decree, along with the court ruling dissolving the parliament elected in February 2012 was the main catalyst for the opposition’s boycott of the December 2012 elections.

The central calculation by the regime appeared to be that its support would be high enough that they would be able to claim the boycott was a failure, or at least not an unmitigated success. The new parliament legitimized the electoral decree, and actually held a recent debate where MPs criticized the Interior Minister for not cracking down hard enough. The regime’s control of the formal political system has enabled it to have legal justification for cracking down on what it terms to be dissent (e.g. the allegations directed against Barrak for “insulting the Emir”).

Whatever happens in court today, the decision is likely to underline the divisions between Kuwait’s formal and informal political spaces. A denial of the appeal would trigger protests that could potentially be larger than those that have occurred in recent months, but the regime may be able to weather them. A decision to release Barrack – and the decision is up to the judge – would embolden his supporters and also set the stage for further protests on other issues, as well as future legal battles as the opposition would seek to contest the regime’s dominance of the political system. Either way, Kuwait is likely to experience demonstrations this week, and the ruling will be a key factor in determining their nature, their demands, and the degree to which they are violent or peaceful. This is the immediate implication of the decision to be handed down later today.

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