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.

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