A few weeks ago, while I was being interrogated by Kuwait’s public prosecution, I said I had the right to directly address the head of state and disclose my opinions of his policies and decisions. The investigator, however, regarded this as a punishable crime deserving 10 days of imprisonment, pending an investigation. I was sent to prison and accused of insulting the emir.
Massive protests against my imprisonment erupted, despite the special forces’ attempts to stop them with teargas and stun grenades. The next morning, my lawyers appealed the public prosecution’s decision before a judge. I was released on bail and banned from leaving the country. My release was born out of fear of the intensifying public pressure, not the rule of law.
A few days before my imprisonment, I had participated in the largest demonstration in Kuwait’s history – approximately 100,000 people attended. I joined another massive demonstration soon after my release.
Kuwait is one of the world’s richest countries per capita, and Kuwaitis seemingly enjoy a good lifestyle – wages are high and we don’t pay taxes. So, why are we protesting? What do we want?
We are protesting against an unconstitutional change in the electoral law pushed forward by the emir. The electoral system divides Kuwait into five districts; 10 parliamentarians are elected from each district. Previously people could cast four votes per ballot, but the new law permits voters to cast only one. This change aims to quell the national assembly’s role, as it facilitates the governing authority’s control of electoral outcomes – which in turn undermines the country’s democratic legitimacy.
On a deeper level, however, the demonstrations are against individual rule, something Kuwaitis have long and actively refused. In 1962, when the current constitution – which limits the governing authority’s role – was issued, it established that the public has the right to impose its opinions on the emir through the elected national assembly – a right that the governing authority refuses to acknowledge. The current struggle is therefore a struggle for power. Is power – as stated in the constitution – for the public, or is it – contrary to the constitution – for the emir?
The majority of people also believe that the government, representing the ruling family, is not serious in its battle against corruption. In fact, people are convinced they are sponsoring it. This belief was one of the reasons behind the dissolution of the 2012 parliament and the recent changes in the electoral system, following the opposition’s exposure of evidence that state money was being transferred to private accounts in London, Geneva and New York, and of the previous government bribing parliamentarians in 2009.
The ruling authority is hoping to weaken support for the opposition by persuading the public that the demonstrations are organised attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the regime. These allegations are fabricated. The Muslim Brotherhood is merely a participant in the widespread opposition, which is led by Kuwait’s youth.
Unsurprisingly, the popular opposition in Kuwait is a cause for concern to neighbouring Gulf countries. Fearing that the demonstrations will spread, Gulf Cooperation Council rulers have expressed their solidarity with the Kuwaiti government on several occasions.
But unless the government enhances the role of the national assembly and adheres to the constitution, political tensions will continue to escalate. Article (iv) of the current constitution stipulates that the emir must come from the al-Sabah family, while article (vi) stipulates that the system of government shall be democratic, with sovereignty residing in the people.
People do not dispute the al-Sabah family’s right to the presidency, but the al-Sabah family is disputing the people’s right to manage the state and its wealth. In the end, the people of Kuwait will be triumphant.
Musallam Al-Barrak is a Kuwaiti opposition leader and former MP.