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.

Kuwait After December 1st: A Divided Political Sphere

Protests in Kuwait have been held every day since the election on December 1st, and show no sign of abating, although at present their size is limited and the regime retains a degree of support. Today, a protest was held in Kuwait City that attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators who chanted slogans against the Emir’s decree, demonstrating that even as the regime has moved to dominate the formal political arena the opposition has the clout to demand that its voice be heard.

It seems from the results of the election that the opposition’s decision to boycott the polls means that there are two separate (but related) political processes occurring in Kuwait at the same time. There is the regular political process – now dominated by forces allied with the government – who are by no means homogenous (as will be outlined below in greater detail) consisting of the royal family and the executive branch, the National Assembly (now dominated by government allies) and the judicial system.

Then there is the opposition, which by boycotting the election removed itself from much of the formal political system. The political sphere of the opposition consists of protests, both authorized like the massive December 1st protest on the eve of the election, which was supported by @KarametWatan, the anonymous organizers of several previous protests. The rally was attended by numerous opposition figures, including Ahmed Al-Saadoun, former Speaker of the National Assembly who most recently held that position in the Assembly elected in February 2012, which was dissolved by the constitutional court. Also speaking at the rally was former Islamist MP Jamaan Al-Herbesh. Musallam Al-Barrak, a former MP who was arrested and later released on bail in October after urging the Emir not to rule in an autocratic manner, attended the rally and chanted slogans against the regime.

The government on Tuesday pledged to take a hard line against opposition protests. The Interior Ministry vowed to not allow “any unauthorized gatherings whatever their aims and needs are,” and said that police officers had been injured in clashes on Monday by protesters who were throwing stones and had attempted to run over police officers. The government’s hard line led them to arrest eight teenagers between 15 and 17 years old without charges before a protest on Thursday, according to Naser AlAbduljalil (@NforNaser).

At the same time that protests are continuing, the government has moved forward with the formal political process without opposition participation. Despite recent events, an analysis of the turnout reveals that the regime still has a large degree of public support, or at least acquiescence. If the opposition’s calculation of 28 percent turnout is accurate (down from approximately 60 percent in previous elections) then theoretically about 53.3 percent of the electorate participate in the boycott. The official statistics indicate that approximately 40 percent of the electorate voted, which would mean approximately 33 percent of the population participated in the boycott.

The regime is thus moving forward with the belief that it has the support (or at least acquiescence) of between 46 and 67 percent of the electorate following the recent election, and it is to this political process that I now turn.

Official Political Process (Government allies)

The government is moving foward as though the election was a referendum in which it prevailed. The Emir reappointed the incumbent Prime Minister, Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah who has served since late 2011 when a corruption scandal led to the resignation of his predecessor. He has until December 16th to select a new cabinet, as that is when the new National Assembly will convene.

The National Assembly that convenes on the 16th will be substantially different than the previous one, as Shia candidates won an unprecedented number of seats, while tribal figures and Sunni Islamists chose to boycott. MPs are already competing for position in the next parliament. Ali Al-Omair thought to be one of the frontrunners for the Speakership, and Essam Al-Dabous has also announced he intends to stand. MP Askar Al-Enezi has announced his run for the Deputy speakership. Al-Enezi was the top vote-getter in the 4th constituency despite being initially barred from running due to his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal. (As a matter of fact candidates initially barred from standing did quite well, 9 of them were elected.) Both of these MPs – despite being government loyalists, have shown at least some degree of independence, as Al-Omair participated or supported two ministerial grillings in 2007 (including one member of the royal family), and Al-Enezi urged the government to apologize when the head of the Enezi tribe was arrested at the airport following pro-Bedoon protest tweets prior to a flight.

What these examples show is that the loyalists, just like the coalition opposing the government, cannot be considered a completely homogenous group. Some members of the new parliament have discussed making further changes to the electoral law, such as having 10 constituencies with 5 MPs and two votes per voter, which would be the same votes to seats ratio (40 percent) as under the 2006 electoral law, in the hopes of averting another boycott. However given the government’s decision to press forward in spite of the boycott the opposition is unlikely to take this as a suitable concession, and will likely continue to engage in protests and legal challenges, to which I now turn.

Opposition’s Political Process

The opposition decided to boycott the election following the Emir’s decree reducing the number of votes each voter is allowed to cast from four to one. The protests have continued following the election.

Today, tens of thousands of Kuwaitis protested near Kuwait towers and chanted “the people want the fall of the decree.” On Wednesday, protesters gathered at a roundabout outside Kuwait City and were followed by cars honking their horns in support as they chanted against the Emir’s electoral decree. The previous day police had fired tear gas at demonstrators protesting against the results of the election.

The opposition has refused to accept the legitimacy of the new parliament and is calling for the revocation of the one-vote decree. Their protests have been met by the regime with tear gas and batons as well as arbitrary arrests.

They have also vowed to challenge the electoral decrees through the courts. A few days ago several leading figures from the liberal National Bloc filed a petition, saying that they would respect the court’s verdict. The Emir had previously said the same thing. If the court rules against the decree it would result in the 2009 National assembly being recalled – yet again – and another election – yet again.

What does this mean?

The Emir’s decree was seen by the opposition as crossing a line, as they decided the regime wanted to increase its power at their expense. Meanwhile, following the election the regime feels confident that it can endure the protests. Maybe they are right, at least in the short term. However, over the long term if (even according to the regime’s own figures) one-third of the population rejects participation in the political process it does not bode well for Kuwait long-term. The regime may yet pull through this crisis without making any real concessions, but the people – as they have in the past – have been steadfast in demanding their rights. It is unclear whether any outcome can resolve the long-term political crisis, so the upheaval that has lasted for the past six years continues, and has entered a new phase with this most recent election.

Kuwait: Election Winners by Constituency

The following are the winners of the December 2012 Kuwaiti National Assembly election in each of Kuwait’s five constituencies. As has been mentioned before, the election was boycotted by the opposition, so all of the candidates elected were pro-regime. Overall turnout (albiet, according to the official statistics) was 38.5 percent.

Analyzing these election winners reveals the impact of the one-vote decree – it drastically reduces the number of votes that a candidate needs to be elected, and it makes manipulation of the election results more likely when the threshold to be elected is so low. The highest percentage that a winning candidate received was 14 percent, and the lowest was 2 percent, in the 5th constituency where Nasser Abdullah Al-Shammari was elected as an MP with only 502 votes, or 2 percent of the total number of votes cast.

1st Constituency (turnout 42,868):

  1. Kamel Al-Awadhi – 5757 votes (13%)
  2. Adnan Abdulsamad – 4983 (11%)
  3. Faisal Al-Duwarsan – 4851 (11%)
  4. Yusuf Zalzala – 3529 (8%)
  5. Maasouma Al-Mubarak – 3204 (7%)
  6. Abdulhameed Dashti – 2725 (6%)
  7. Saleh Ashour – 2241 (5%)
  8. Nawwaf Al-Fuzai – 2090 (4%)
  9. Khaled Al-Shatti – 1901 (4%)
  10. Hussein Al-Qallaf – 1656 (3%)

2nd Constituency (turnout 26,167):

  1. Ali Al-Rashed – 3044 (11%)
  2. Adnan Al-Mutawwa’ – 2598 (9%)
  3. Abdulrahman Al-Jeeran – 2317 (8%)
  4. Bader Al-Bathali – 1919 (7%)
  5. Adel Al-Kharafi – 1834 (7%)
  6. Ahmed Lari – 1634 (6%)
  7. Khalaf Dmaitheer Al-Enezi – 1552 (5%)
  8. Khalil Al-Saleh – 1475 (5%)
  9. Hamad Saif Al-Harshani – 1043 (3%)
  10. Saleh Al-Ateeqi – 909 (3%)

3rd Constituency (turnout 38,205):

  1. Ali Al-Omari – 5714 (14%)
  2. Khalil Abdullah Ali Abdullah – 3780 (9%)
  3. Ahmed Al-Mulaifi – 2979 – (7%)
  4. Safa’ Al-Hasheem – 2632 – (6%)
  5. Saadoun Hamad Al-Otaibi – 2147 – (5%)
  6. Hesham Al-Baghli – 1980 – (5%)
  7. Abdullah Al-Mayouf – 1944 – (5%)
  8. Nabil Al-Fadhl – 1860 – (4%)
  9. Yaaqoub Al-Sane’ – 1392 – (3%)
  10. Mohammad Al-Jabri – 1244 – (3%)

4th Constituency (turnout 31,640):

  1. Askar Al-Enezi – 2517 – (8%)
  2. Saad Khanfour Al-Rashidi – 2474 – (8%)
  3. Saud Nashmi Al-Huraiji – 2125 – (6%)
  4. Mubarak Al-Khurainej – 1768 – (5%)
  5. Thikra Al-Rashidi – 1283 – (4%)
  6. Khaled Al-Shulaimi – 1251 – (3%)
  7. Mohammad Al-Barrak – 1214 - (3%)
  8. Mishari Al-Husseini – 1126 - (3%)
  9. Mubarak Al-Orf – 1120 - (3%)
  10. Mubarak Saleh Al-Nejada – 1090 - (3%)

5th Constituency (turnout 24,421):

  1. Faisal Al-Kandari – 3534 – (14%)
  2. Abdullah Al-Tamimi – 2852 – (11%)
  3. Nasser Al-Marri – 1634 – (6%)
  4. Hanin Hussein Shams – 1612 – (6%)
  5. Essam Al-Dabboos – 1299 – (5%)
  6. Khaled Adwa Al-Ajmi – 869 - (3%)
  7. Taher Al-Failakawi – 846 - (3%)
  8. Hammad Al-Dosari – 839 - (3%)
  9. Saad Al-Boos – 792 - (3%)
  10. Nasser Abdullah Al-Shammari – 502 – (2%)

It is important to note, as mentioned in the previous post, that the 1st constituency was least affected by the boycott while the 4th and 5th constituencies, with large tribal populations were the most affected by it. A major reason why the 1st constituency was not affected by the boycott was due to the large Shi’ite population there. As mentioned before, Shi’ites won a record number of seats in this election.

Former MP Ali Al-Omair says courts may delay election

Former MP Ali Al-Omair, who is running for the National Assembly in the Third Constituency, said that it is possible that the court might delay the elections in its ruling tomorrow, according to Kuwait Times. If the court does delay the election then it would mean that the parliament elected in 2009 would be reinstated for a second time, after being reinstated in July by the Constitutional Court. The same court would then rule on whether or not the Emir’s decree is constitutional.

Although he is not boycotting the election, Al-Omair has caused problems for the government in the past. In February 2007 he supported a motion to question then-Health Minister Shaikh Ahmad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah over problems with the health care system, including corruption, discrimination, and a decline in the quality of services. After the questioning the minister was facing a no-confidence vote after 10 members signed a motion which would have meant that a member of the Al-Sabah family was facing a no-confidence motion – despite no Minister ever having been removed by one before. To avoid the vote, the government resigned, and the new government appointed by the Emir did not include the former Health Minister in the new cabinet. Later that year, in October 2007, Al-Omair supported questioning the Minister of Islamic and Awqaf Affairs.

Al-Omair’s comments about the potential postponement of the election outline what would happen in the event that the courts intervene. The new parliament could also review the Emir’s decree if the court does not overturn it – unlikely since it will consist primarily of government supporters, but public pressure can cause people to change their opinions. Either way, Kuwait’s political crisis shows no sign of letting up.

Is Kuwait Headed for Yet Another Election? (After this one)

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah has said that he will accept any decision by the constitutional court regarding his decree reducing the number of votes citizens are allowed to cast from four to one. He said this in a speech during which he urged citizens to vote, and the government has also launched ads urging citizens to cast their ballots. The opposition is planning a rally organized by @KarametWatan for November 30th, the eve of the election that will be called “Dignity of the Nation 3.”

The opposition’s boycott is largely due to the decree issued by the Emir in which he reduced the number of votes that citizens are allowed to cast from four to one. With the Naitonal Assembly consisting of 50 members, with ten each elected from five districts. With the one-vote system, this means that it will be easier for the government to manipulate the electoral process to ensure success by pro-government candidates. Even with the opposition boycotting there are still 389 candidates running for 50 seats, meaning that those elected would likely need less than 10 percent of the vote to win – which is why the opposition views it as favorable to government allies and why they refuse to participate.

Legal challenges may be filed against the Emir’s decree – and this is where it gets interesting. A challenge to the electoral law may be referred to the Constitutional Court by ordinary trial courts, at which point the Constitutional Court can consider making a ruling on the constitutionality of the decree. If the court does decide to overturn the decree – and that’s a big if – then its interesting to see what would happen.

I foresee one of two things – the court itself ordering the dissolution of the national assembly because it was elected improperly (or it being dissolved) or an attempt by the government to resist holding new elections, which would escalate the country’s political crisis further. My guess is that they take the first route, which could lead to yet another general election for Kuwait, which would be the sixth since the current Emir assumed the throne in 2006. If the court decides to maintain the decree then the opposition boycott will continue.

Either way the political crisis is likely to escalate over the coming months, with no clear resolution in sight.

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.