The ferment in Kuwait isn't about poverty or sectarianism – but democracy. Blaiming it on Egyptian Islamists is a risky strategy
It cannot be called an uprising. Nor do demonstrators demand regime change. The dispute is narrowly about preventing a change in the electoral law that would disenfranchise voters. Nevertheless, the demonstrations taking place in Kuwait are real enough. Tens of thousands, a number unheard of in Kuwait, took part in a "march of dignity" and a further mass protest is planned for Sunday despite an announced ban on public gatherings of more than 20 people. The wave of demands for democratic change, which Saudi Arabia fervently hoped had come to a crashing halt with the civil war in Syria, is now lapping around the feet of the Gulf states.
That Kuwait should give rise to such scenes is, on the face of it, a surprise. It is not only one of the wealthiest oil producers in the region, but a state with a raucous parliament to which the current emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, partly owes his position. A former foreign minister, Sabah was not the crown prince when the then emir, Sheikh Jaber, died in 2006. The death created a dynastic crisis, as the crown prince Sheikh Sa'ad was too ill to take the oath. Sa'ad abdicated and Sabah took over, but by the time the abdication came through Kuwait's parliament had already voted Sa'ad out of office.
The new emir was the victor of a power struggle within the ruling family, but he was also the popular choice. This point is not lost on today's parliamentarians, who say that, as they backed him, the emir owes them one. It also accounts for the proprietary tone of the slogan: "We will not let you" [take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy].
There are other factors that make Kuwait different. There is no Sunni-Shia divide in this state. In fact, relations between the Sunni state and Iran are by custom and practice stable. So unlike Bahrain, no one can blame Iran for fomenting unrest. Instead, the Kuwaiti authorities have been forced to look elsewhere for the source of their troubles.
With the exception of Qatar, the Gulf states are now openly blaming Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as the source of their domestic woes. After the "dignity" demonstration, the Kuwaiti government said they were looking for three members of the Brotherhood. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, which has locked up 64 members of a local Islamist group al-Islah, used his address to the United Nations to claim that the brothers were plotting to undermine governments in the region. The Brotherhood is now on the agenda of the next meeting of the Gulf co-operation council.
Blaming Egyptian Islamists for trouble at home is a high-risk strategy. If Egypt pulls through, it is a doomed one. It risks local unity – Qatar is a major financial backer of both Egypt and Tunisia. It invites the very comparison with corrupt dictators of the Arab republicans, that the monarchs of the Gulf were so anxious to avoid. By portraying Islamism as an outside force, it guarantees it added credibility as an internal one.
Islamists, whether Brotherhood or Salafi, are only part of the opposition in Kuwait. Youth groups, nationalists, liberals are all in this too. The arrest of Musallam al-Barrak, a former lawmaker and union leader, has done more to galvanise the opposition than anything else. An independent nationalist, at the last elections Barrack garnered around 30,000 votes, the highest number in Kuwait. To declare him the plaything of foreign power is political folly. He has now been released on bail.
The source of the ferment in Kuwait has little to do with Islamism. It is an amendment to the electoral law pushed by the emir that would reduce the number of votes each voter cast to one. With multiseat constituencies, this would mean that, as in Jordan, if the opposition candidate got 70% of the vote, the remainder of the vote would be divided up among the other seats for the same constituency. This would pave the way for a neutered parliament in which the opposition could never take control. It is blatantly undemocratic but it is non-negotiable.
The emir is, however, going full-steam ahead with an election on 1 December on this basis, which the opposition has now said it will boycott. The ferment in the Gulf undermines the thesis that the movement known as the Arab spring is primarily about poverty. It defies too the prediction that it has run into the sands of sectarian divides between Sunni and Shia. The Gulf rulers thought they could buy immunity from this change but they have found that dignity is not something that even their unlimited quantity of petrodollars can buy. All eyes are now looking nervously on Kuwait.