The Kuwaiti Election and Its Aftermath

On Tuesday, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, announced that all those who were jailed for insulting him would receive a pardon. The fact that this comes so quickly after an election indicates that it might be part of a strategy by the regime to reduce tensions. The pardon announcement includes one name and one group of people that are conspicuous for their absence – Musallam al-Barrak is not included, and neither are those who participated in the storming of parliament. The announcement was made in a speech in which the Emir said that he was issuing the pardon on the occasion of the final ten days of the month of Ramadan.

Barrak’s lawyer said that the reason is because there has been no final verdict in his case. It also appears not to apply to those who are facing pending charges – and in Kuwait, insulting the Emir is subject to a potential five year prison sentence.

The fact that these pardons come in the wake of an election is very interesting, and telling. In this most recent election there were slight gains by liberals, but many of the major opposition factions decided to boycott. The regime’s decision to pardon many of the defendants (but not Barrak) may be an attempt to divide the opposition’s supporters from the political figures who play a leading role in the movement. In the election, Shi’ite MPs won eight seats which is a major drop from 17 seats in the previous parliament. Three liberals were elected compared with zero before (the last election for the now-annulled parliament was boycotted) and, Sunni Islamists increased their total to seven seats after winning five previously.

The major change was that major tribes which boycotted last time decided to participate, as well as some liberal voters, boosting the turnout to 52.5 percent. There were several tribes that participated this time but did not do so the last time, including the Awazem, the Mutair, and the Rashaida, although their electoral success was relatively limited prompting some observers to argue that the recent electoral system places the largest tribes at a disadvantage. One interesting element about the tribal vote was that there were several smaller tribes that gained seats at the expense of their larger counterparts.

This election appears to over little in terms of a long term settlement of Kuwait’s political crisis. 26 out of 50 MPs are new compared to the previous parliament, but the Prime Minister was just reappointed by the Emir. What remains to be seen is if this election ushers in a phase of tenuous stability and if this is enough to enable the country to achieve the economic diversification that it desperately needs to reduce the impact of swings in the price of oil and other petroleum products.

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.

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.