Kuwait's Moment of Truth

Last night's violent clashes in Kuwait have brought its long-brewing political crisis to a dangerous point. It did not have to be this way, in a Gulf state that has long stood out for its robust public sphere, electoral traditions and vibrant parliament. But a series of unusually provocative steps by both the royal family and the opposition, in the context of a long-running battle over the powers of parliament and accountability for the royal family, have taken their toll and tempers are running hot. After months of growing popular mobilization and a complex crisis of political institutions, Kuwait's political future suddenly seems deeply uncertain. 

Before it gets too late to de-escalate, the Kuwaiti leadership needs to offer meaningful political concessions, including standing down on its deeply controversial plans for a December election, relaxing its attempt to shut down public dissent, and allowing a greater parliamentary role in the selection of cabinet ministers. It seems to have instead decided that now is the time to crack down hard before things get out of hand. Its repressive turn and the galvanizing effect on a mostly moderate opposition offers a troubling echo of Bahrain's brutal path ... one which the Kuwaitis seemed uniquely well-placed to avoid, but now looms large. Kuwait's long-developing political crisis is discussed in depth in the essays collected in today's new POMEPS Briefing, "Kuwait's Moment of Truth."

Kuwait's problems have been evident for quite a while, as popular mobilization interacted with repeated efforts to assert parliamentary authority over successive governments appointed by the emir. Those political battles were moving ever closer to the royal family itself, particularly allegations of corruption (which last November drove the prime minister from office) and demands for parliament's right to interrogate royal government ministers. The long political stalemate at the top coincided with the growing assertiveness of a wired youth movement, the troubling rise of a new kind of sectarianism, and the success of Islamists and tribal figures in the February 2012 elections. Indeed, I included an assault by regime security forces on dissident Kuwaiti academic Obaid al-Wasmi in my January 5, 2011 essay on the crumbling foundations of the Arab order - before the fall of Ben Ali, before the Egyptian uprising, and before most observers sensed the impending regional Arab uprising. 

Unlike many Gulf states, Kuwait's current crisis comes within the context of a long-history of public, contentious politics. To its great credit, Kuwait has a long history of parliamentary politics, and its vibrant and creative youth movement has been active for over half a decade. Its experience with contentious and parliamentary politics, along with massive oil wealth and solid U.S. political support, should have left Kuwait better equipped to handle rising political turbulence. But the popular and parliamentary challenges to royal authority seem to have knocked the emirate off-balance. The arrest of opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak for his public warning to the Emir ("We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy.") and its ban on public demonstrations does not suggest a confident regime.

The popular mobilization in Kuwait should quickly dispel any notions of the Gulf being immune to the underlying drivers of the Arab uprising. The youth movement in Kuwait is every bit as wired, impatient and engaged as in other Arab countries -- and has been active since at least 2006. Online activists and politicians besides Barrak have increasingly openly mocked and challenged the al-Sabah family, though going after the Emir himself marks an escalation. Last November, in an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the royal family, parliamentary opposition and popular mobilization -- which included the shocking occupation of the parliament building by protesters -- forced the resignation of Prime Minister Nasser Mohammed al-Sabah over allegations of corruption. The massive protest on October 21 was possibly the largest in the history of Kuwait. Opposition leaders are huddling to decide on a strategy after last night's clashes, but do not seem inclined to back down as a wave of popular anger pushes them forward. They plan a major protest on Sunday, November 4, in defiance of the regime's ban on public assembly.

After years of jockeying with its opponents, the regime has pushed back hard, in ways that look likely to backfire. In June, the emir suspended the troublesome parliament for the first time in Kuwaiti history; it was subsequently dissolved after the Constitutional Court ruled the February 2012 election void. The emir then unilaterally announced changes to the election law that outraged the opposition, which has declared its intention to boycott the elections called for December 1. The government banned public gatherings of more than 20 people, and warns of even harsher penalties after the violent clashes last night. It is also reportedly planning to prosecute international NGOs for reporting on its human rights violations and political crackdown. Barrak, the opposition figure whose arrest galvanized the recent protest, will reportedly be charged with undermining the status of the emir (he was released on bail pending his detention).

While the drivers of the tension in Kuwait have much in common with the other Arab uprisings, particularly the impatient and mobilized youth, it is important to keep local conditions well in mind. Many Kuwaitis support the regime against the opposition, and there is a long history of public politics to fall back upon. Crucially, this is not currently a mobilization for the overthrow of the regime. Most protesters want to see a constitutional monarchy and political reforms, not revolution. But the lessons of other cases -- notably Bahrain -- suggest that the Kuwaiti regime's current course of action poses a real risk of radicalizing its opposition and setting in motion unpredictable popular forces. (Unconfirmed rumors such as those reported by Mohammed al-Jassim that Saudi and UAE leaders pushing their Kuwaiti counterparts to crack down only exacerbate such fears.)

Kuwaitis are proud of their parliament, angry about corruption, and determined to see greater transparency and accountability. Their demands thus far focus on such relatively moderate reforms. But it is unclear whether the regime can make such concessions. Parliamentary selection or approval of the prime minister and cabinet, rather than appointment by the emir, would fundamentally change the enduring logic of family rule in Kuwait. As Nathan Brown noted last December, "the old [political order] is fraying, but it is not quite clear what is replacing it." POMEPS Briefing 15, "Kuwait's Moment of Truth," explains how we got here and what to expect next.


Marc Lynch

A Barometer for Arab Democracy

Arab public opinion is increasingly important following the Arab uprising, the empowerment of public forces, the more open online and traditional media, and the contentious political transitions in some countries.  I've recently discussed the findings of opinion surveys in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt, as well as Pew's extraordinary survey of global Muslim attitudes.  Now I'd like to point out some of the key findings of the second wave of the Arab Barometer, conducted in seven countries in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings.  Mark Tessler, Amaney Jamal and Michael Robbins, the scholars who lead the Arab Barometer project, have just published an article detailing some of its key findings about democracy in the Journal of Democracy.  They show that Arabs continue to strongly support democracy as the best form of government, even as understandings of democracy continue to evolve, while Islamism at the time of the survey seemed to be receding rather than advancing with broad Arab publics.

The Arab Barometer is different from other surveys out there for a few reasons.  First, it's done by academics and for academics, which means there is less attention to the current events of the day (approval of particular governments, views of the United States) and more to the underlying attitudes.  Second, it uses a very careful methodology to the best practices of the field, in contrast to a lot of other surveys in the region done on the cheap or in support of a particular agenda.   Third, all of its data is open access and available to all researchers.   Finally, its battery of questions is explicitly designed to be comparable with the Barometers in Latin America, Africa and Europe.  This strength is also a weakness, of course, for those who want insights into the current mood in these countries more than they do longer-term trends -- these survey results are more useful to highlight change and continuity in public attitudes over time than to answer extremely current ticks in political preferences. 

That said, the findings are quite interesting.   Support for democracy in the abstract remains very high across all the countries surveyed.  But it actually dropped somewhat in several countries in the years between the two waves.  Support for democracy dropped by almost ten points in Lebanon and five points in Jordan, though it remained high in absolute terms everywhere. 

The Barometer found very interesting differences in how Arabs thought about democracy in different countries, however.  It asks a battery of questions about the meaning of democracy, asking respondents to specify whether they understand democracy primarily in political terms (i.e. free and fair elections) or in economic terms (i.e. reducing inequality or provision of services).  There was some evidence that the political understanding of democracy increased in the wake of the Arab uprising:  in Algeria, there was an 11 point increase from the first wave to the second in those identifying political rather than economic dimensions as most important;  in Yemen, where the question was not asked in the 1st wave, 61% identified political dimensions.  But in Egypt, conducted in the summer of 2011 after the revolution, the survey found an overwhelmingly economic view of demcoracy. Only 6% named "free and fair elections" as the most essential characteristic of democracy, while  77% named economic factors such as low inequality, elimination of corruption, or provision of basic necessities to all. 

The survey also found strong support for the notion that "reform should proceed gradually" across most countries, although overall there was a 12 percentage point drop in support for gradual reform between the two waves (from 89.5% to 77.7%).  Algerians seem to have grown particularly impatient; in a survey done after January 2011, support for gradual reform fell from 91.4% to 63.3%.   Significant drops were also seen in Yemen, also carried out after January 2011 (from 87% to 69%), and -- less significantly -- in Jordan (90% to 85%). 

The survey found a huge decline in political interest in Lebanon and Palestine, and overall in 2nd wave almost all countries converged to between 33%-40% on the question of "interest in politics."  But the survey also founda  huge increase in civic engagement from the 1st to the 2nd wave. The most dramatic increase came in Yemen, with 23% increase, but the survey also found a roughly 9% increase in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine. 

The survey's findings on religion broadly accord with the Pew survey that support for Islamist views of politics is receding rather than surging.   Overall, those saying that religion should not influence how people vote in elections went from 67.8% in the 1st wave to 81.2% in the 2nd wave.   There was also a decline in support for the idea that more religious people should hold public office (from 44.6% to 38.5%).  The idea that religion is primarily a private matter gained support, from 53.7% to 65.1%. In Egypt, only 37% said that men of religion should influence government decisions and 87% say they should not influence how citizens vote.  80% said that religion is a private matter, and only 47% said they trusted the Muslim Brotherhood.  Support for the idea that laws should be made in accordance to will of people remained stable (from 62.9% to 64.5%), but there was a slight increase in the belief that laws should be made in accordance with shari'a (from 67.3% to 73.4%).  Actual Muslims living in the Arab world generally do not see a contradiction in these positions; only 30.2% in both waves agreed that democracy and Islam were incompatible.  In short, perhaps there is an upsurge in Islamism in the Arab world, then, but this survey wave did not detect one.

I've written often about the promise and the pitfalls of survey research in the Arab world.   These findings, like all the others, should be seen as snapshots offering only partial visibility into the real attitudes of Arab citizens and how those views matter.  But the Arab Barometer is a particularly well-designed specimen of such research. It should be supplemented with other kinds of data, from voting patterns to social media data to ethnography, but its value should not be dismissed.  

UPDATE:  in response to a question from Twitter, I asked the authors of the Arab Barometer report about the composition of the 30.2% of respondents who considered Islam and democracy incompatible. How many were secularists skeptical about Islam, and how many were Islamists skeptical about democracy?  Michael Robbins, one of the three authors, kindly went back into the data to find out.  Here's what he had to say:  

I ran some crosstabs to compare the response pattern for those who "strongly agree" that religion is a private matter that should be separated from socio-economic life and those who "strongly disagree" with the same item.  The analysis is for Muslims only.  The percentages shown are for those who strongly agree or who agree that democracy and Islam are incompatible.  There is not a consistent pattern across countries.  There are four countries where those with a secular orientation are less likely to believe that Islam and democracy are compatible: Iraq (23.6% difference), Saudi Arabia (14.8%), Jordan (14%), and Yemen (10%) .  There is not a large difference in Sudan (4.2%), Palestine (0.8%), and Egypt (-3.4%) between the two groups.  Only in Algeria (-18.3%) and Tunisia (-6.6%) are those with an Islamist orientation less likely to say that Islam and democracy are not compatible.  (The sample size in Lebanon was too small for analysis using these items.)

Thanks to Michael Robbins for going back to the data in response to the query.