I am mesmerized by the continuing political developments in Kuwait – and to a lesser extent in other Gulf Cooperation Council countries – where thousands of citizens of a wealthy, paternalistic and generous Gulf oil-producing country continue to protest against the government for a variety of reasons anchored in rights, rather than material needs. Kuwaitis raise the prospect of movement toward becoming the first Gulf oil-producing Arab state where the executive authority and police powers of the ruling family are checked by citizen-based accountability and participation mechanisms, in other words the consent of the governed and the sovereignty of citizens. Though they go back many years, in their simplest and latest manifestations Kuwait’s political developments revolve around the issue of whether or not the emir has the authority to unilaterally revise the parliamentary electoral districts system to ensure a pro-regime and docile legislature, and whether or not citizens who oppose such manipulation have the right to peacefully protest against such moves and demand more democratic behavior by the ruling elite.
This contest has now been symbolized by the person and behavior of former member of parliament Musallam Barrak, who was sentenced a few days ago to five years in jail for comments he made in a public rally last October. At the rally, he directly addressed the emir and affirmed that Kuwaitis would not allow him to run an autocratic system manipulated from above. This week police raided his home to arrest him, but he said that he would only submit to arrest if the police respected the law and showed him a legitimate judicial arrest order. Thousands of his supporters converged on his home to protect him and continue the protests. On Wednesday and Thursday police fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, who claimed his conviction was unfair because defense lawyers were not allowed to call their designated witnesses.
This is not all new. Opposition parliamentarians and the ruling Sabah family have quarreled for decades, given Kuwait’s tradition of a feisty parliament and press. In the current developments, however, three important red lines have been breached. A public official has openly challenged the behavior of the emir and continued to do so in the face of state pressure to silence him. Tens of thousands of ordinary Kuwaitis have repeatedly taken to the street to show their support for the basic demands and grievances that Barrak has articulated, defying bans on their public activity and police actions to prevent or disperse them. And, after Barrak was sentenced to his five-year jail term, thousands of his supporters chanted in public the exact same words that he had used in accusing the emir of autocratic behavior, which the state had deemed offensive to the emir and that were the cause of Barrak’s conviction.
A parallel important new political dynamic is the convergence among demonstrators of several opposition groups that had formerly mostly worked on their own, including Islamists, tribalists, nationalists, youth groups, human rights activists and “bidoun” Kuwaitis who lack full nationality and rights.
This kind of multi-constituency, nonviolent, mass civil disobedience and open defiance of the emir and the police reminds me of the civil rights protests by schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama, 50 years ago. There, thousands of youngsters who marched peacefully and sang protest songs in defiance of police orders also took their toothbrushes with them, knowing they would go to jail for at least a night. When the packed jails of Birmingham and adjacent towns eventually could hold no more protesters, and peaceful demonstrators demanding nothing more than their civil rights showed by their behavior that they were prepared to be jailed over and over again, the racist power elite gave up and negotiated an end to the protests by recognizing the citizens’ demands.
It is not clear if mass civil disobedience will move Kuwait in a similar direction. What is clear is that we are witnessing in Kuwait an unprecedented situation of anti-autocracy mass civil disobedience by elements of a population that is not poor, hungry or lacking in basic services. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, these protesters are not demanding the overthrow of the regime. Rather, they are seeking constitutional reforms that give citizens basic rights to participate in decision-making and hold power accountable.
The modern Arab security state has always responded to such movements with massive police action, including imprisonment, exile or even the withdrawal of nationality (as has happened in several GCC states in the past few years). Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis seem to be challenging this modern Arab legacy, suggesting instead that genuine security and stability must be anchored in that one phenomenon that the Arab world has never seriously tried to create: a satisfied citizenry that shapes state policies, enjoys the protection of the rule of law, and is the source of the legitimacy of public authority.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.