Update: Mohammad Abdul Qader al-Jassem, the attorney for opposition leader and former MP Musallam al-Barrak, who is discussed below, was condemned by the Foreign Ministry of Kuwait in a statement. The foreign ministry said that it would be taking action against him. Al-Jassem has been detained multiple times, and was most recently released from detention in 2011.
In two days, on November 4th the Kuwaiti opposition plans rallies to protest recent changes in the election law for the upcoming parliamentary elections on December 1st (which the opposition has vowed to boycott). The government has responded by taking steps to repress protests and criminalize dissent. These include arresting prominent leaders of the opposition, such as former MP Musallam al-Barrak, who was recently arrested on bail, as well as imposing restrictions that prohibit more than twenty people from gathering at any one time.
It’s sad that Kuwait has come to this. While never perfect, the country was – until the recent political crisis – in many ways more open than some of its neighbors. It had the first real parliament of any state in the Gulf region, a fifty member National Assembly that has not hesitated to criticize the government when its members saw fit, despite the continued prohibition of formal political parties. Even as the al-Sabah family has dominated the executive branch (and the constitution prohibits criticism of the Emir) parliament has not hesitated to assert itself, particularly in recent years. Indeed the genesis of the current political crisis stems from the growing willingness of parliament to assert itself and to question ministers.
The current Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, was heavily involved in running the country’s affairs since he became Prime Minister in 2003, and subsequently assumed the throne in January 2006 amidst a succession crisis. Since assuming the throne, the emir has dissolved parliament four times, resulting in elections most recently in February 2012, and an upcoming election on December 1st. The four most recent elections, including the upcoming one, were all triggered by the refusal by the government to be held accountable.
The current political crisis started when a scandal emerged regarding payments to 16 out of 50 members of the National Assembly in return for supporting government policies. In November 2011, the parliament sought to question the then-Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah (a relative of the Emir) regarding the scandal, but the Constitutional Court blocked this, leading on November 16th to the occupation of parliament by protesters, including opposition members of the national assembly.
Following this, the Prime Minister resigned and was replaced by another member of the al-Sabah family, Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah, and parliament was dissolved and elections were held in February 2012, in which Islamists won 34 out of 50 seats. Following a period of tension between the new parliament and the government as the new parliament sought to assert its authority, the constitutional court ruled in June that the parliament should be dissolved and the previous parliament reinstated. Subsequently, members of the reinstated parliament boycotted its sessions and the Emir ordered another dissolution in October with elections held in December. The election is scheduled to go forward but the opposition is vowing to boycott.
A major source of tension is the recent attempt by the government to reverse changes to the electoral law that were made in 2006, which divided the country into five constituencies and gave citizens four votes. The government wanted to return to a one-vote per constituency system but this was blocked by the constitutional court. The opposition remains committed to boycotting the election and protests have recently accelerated, with the government responding by attempting to clamp down on dissent.
Recently the government has used teargas against peaceful protesters, banned gatherings of more than 20 people, and arrested leading figures of the opposition such as Musallam al-Barrack, who was recently released on bail after being arrested for urging the Emir not to rule autocratically.
Perhaps it is a sign of the government’s attitude that al-Barrack’s lawyer, Mohammad Abdul Qader al-Jasem (also an opposition activist), was recently criticized by the Foreign Ministry for “unacceptable interference.” The ministry said it was considering legal action against him. Meanwhile, al-Jassem was banned (along with his immediate family) from entering the UAE or Saudi Arabia. What was al-Jassem’s crime? He wrote a column saying that Saudi Arabia and the UAE needed to stay out of Kuwait’s internal affairs.