The "March of Dignity" on Gulf Road, 21 October 2012
Writing for Foreign Policy, Kristin Smith Diwan profiles and analyses the rising tension and protest in Kuwait:
On Sunday, Kuwaitis staged what is thought to be the largest protest in the country's history. Tens of thousands responded to the call for a "March of Dignity" in rejection of an emergency decree issued by Emir Sabah al-Ahmed revising electoral laws. Chanting, "we will not let you" they were met by security forces equally determined to enforce the interior ministry ban on marches in Kuwait City. As the tear gas clears and the crowds disperse, Kuwaitis can agree that this was an unprecedented event. But oddly, after this dramatic show of brinksmanship there is no more clarity about where Kuwait is headed and how it will resolve its long political standoff.
The confrontation proved a test of strength and unity between two sides that have unsteady stores of it. The ruling family has been back on its heels since a corruption scandal was seized upon by the parliamentary opposition and its youthful allies to force the resignation of the unpopular Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, in November 2011, and then to elect a strongly oppositional parliament two months later. Al-Sabah found an unexpected reprieve when the 2012 parliament was voided after just four months due to a technical ruling by the constitutional court negating the dissolution of the previous parliament.
When efforts to revive the corruption-compromised 2009 parliament failed due to opposition, the Al-Sabah led government again turned to the constitutional court to review the country's election law. But the courts showed surprising independence in declining to declare the electoral districting unconstitutional. Faced with an electoral system that seemed certain to return the opposition, Emir Sabah al-Ahmed took matters into his own hands. Warning of the threat of "chaotic sedition that could jeopardize our country (and) undermine our national unity," he ordered the cabinet to change the voting rules in advance of parliamentary elections to be held on December 1.
The emir's invocation of sedition did not come in a vacuum. Earlier in the week the firebrand opposition leader Musallem al-Barrak stood before a large crowd of protesters in front of the parliament and challenged the emir directly: "We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy." This audacious act threatened to break the social code -- and constitutional order -- elevating the emir above the political fray and safeguarding his unquestioned authority. The government seemed loath to directly confront the popular former member of parliament (MP), but they did arrest three others who had similarly criticized the emir. Reports in the press suggested that the ministry of interior was also seeking greater control over Kuwait's vibrant and boisterous social media by investigating some 800 Twitter users for criticizing the emir.
Al-Barrak's challenge launched a popular new protest chant -- "we will not let you" -- but it likewise threatened to divide the opposition. Kuwait's opposition is composed of a diverse group of tribal populists, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi Islamists, liberal nationalists, and leftists. Strong class and ideological differences separate them, as does the electoral competition among them. Many liberals and Salafi former parliamentarians were angered by what they believed to be an unnecessary provocation of the emir. They were also chastened by a first taste of conflict: a confrontation with security forces following al-Barrak's speech that resulted in the arrest of several youth activists, including the son of the former speaker of the parliament, Ahmed Saadoun.
Still the day following the emir's speech saw the opposition coalescing with pledges to boycott the parliamentary election and to plan a march in protest. They were aided by the resonance of the election reform issue among young activists and movement politicians. Kuwait's 2006 electoral law has a storied history. In 2006 Kuwaiti youth initiated a campaign for political reform and targeted the electoral system, decrying Kuwait's 25 small districts as beset by vote buying and captured by tribes. Reducing the number of districts to five, it was thought, would discourage corruption and elevate citizens to more national issues. The "We want Five" campaign was a landmark in the Gulf for its use of the social media of the time -- blogs -- and for its success in setting the agenda for parliamentarians and ultimately the government. Movement politicians had more pragmatic reasons for opposing the changes. By reducing the number of votes Kuwaitis hold from four to one, the new system would disrupt the complex system of vote trading that Kuwait's politicians use to build alliances across political divides, endangering their ability to create a viable opposition.
Organizers of the March for Dignity tapped into the national reformist ethos and youthful activism of the 2006 campaign. The orange color chosen for the march established the continuity with the earlier electoral reform campaign and the more liberal and urban constituencies that had championed it, linking them to the more Islamist and more tribal activists of today. The theme of "dignity" elided the differences among them and resonated with the citizen demands of the early Arab Spring. Protesters demonstrated their expertise in civil disobedience and nonviolent struggle through speeches and videos quoting Gandhi and playing the U.S civil rights era protest song "We shall overcome."
The plans for the "March of Dignity" called for protesters to gather at three different spots, distinguished by electoral district and staffed with protest leaders, medics, and human rights observers. The marchers were then to converge on the Seif Palace, the seat of government and offices of the Al-Sabah leadership. Both the march through the city and its destination were calculated provocations, meant to indicate the people's autonomy and defiance of government strictures.
The decision by the Al-Sabah led government to confront the protesters directly with some force caught many by surprise. Yet despite the emir's pledge to preserve national unity in the face of tribal and sectarian forces, he was in fact facing a much broader alliance. Thus the decision to shut down the protest may have been calculated to break that fractious coalition, and perhaps to empower the radicals.
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