Kuwait’s Annus Mirabilis

by Mary Ann Tétreault | published September 7, 2006

For background on the emiri transition, see Mary Ann Tétreault, "Three Emirs and a Tale of Two Transitions," Middle East Report Online, February 10, 2006.

Click here for the blog of the "Orange Movement."

Kuwait has had an exceptional year, and it isn’t over yet—though one might not know from reading even the alternative press in the West. Fast on the heels of two remarkable developments in the slow democratization of the emirate, a convulsion gripped another part of the Middle East, crowding Kuwait out of the news. This was a double pity. Serious news about Kuwait rarely penetrates far beyond the region in the best of times. When the story is about democratization rather than invasion or terrorism, even the most encouraging of news can evaporate without a trace. Is this because, in Kuwait, democratization has been more the product of peaceful politics than violent confrontation? If so, it spells a cavalier attitude toward a wave of progressive political change that Americans and others are presumably in favor of seeing happen across the Middle East. 

Kicking off Kuwait’s amazing political year was the intricate double transition among three emirs that took place in January. Ruling family quarrels the previous fall over the succession to the ailing emir, Jabir al-Ahmad, had been dampened, but they were not resolved. Yet following the death of the emir, what could have been a noisy, acrimonious succession fight was transformed into a stately pageant by Jasim al-Khurafi, the speaker of the Kuwaiti parliament. Al-Khurafi managed with great dignity the formal resignation of Crown Prince Saad al-‘Abdallah, stricken with senile dementia, and then presided over the anointing of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir as the new emir. Sheikh Sabah’s investiture took place amidst a wave of good feeling unlikely to have risen without the speaker’s deft, constitutionally guided intervention. Sadly, however, what might have been an extended period of congratulations for Kuwait and acknowledgment of the growing competence of its institutions was swept away by the Hamas election victory in Palestine—the global media being unable to focus on more than one story at a time.

The third major event in Kuwait this year, the June 29 parliamentary elections, garnered international coverage—until it was pushed out of the news, first by the crisis in Gaza and then by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The second major development barely registered on the world’s radar screen, although it was the reason why the elections took place a year ahead of schedule. This development was a dissident campaign noted for its sharp focus -- on consolidating electoral districts; its rapid mobilization—literally three weeks; and its political effectiveness—it got results. The entire sequence recalled the events of the emiri transition just a few months earlier. Scholastics can debate whether a tree falling in a forest makes a noise if no one is there to hear it. Observers of Kuwait are more concerned about whether steps toward constitutional democracy will continue to proceed briskly without the perception that supporters of democracy abroad, as well as at home, are paying attention. We all can only wonder if democratization is a flavor-of-the-month mantra rather than a serious concern of the international community. 

Surprise!

When the emir announced new elections on May 17, almost everyone was astonished, except for a few sharp observers like Saoud al-Enezi, editor of the liberal weekly al-Tali‘a, and Kuwait University professor Ghanim al-Najjar. Al-Enezi had predicted more than three months earlier that the emir would dismiss the fractious 2003 National Assembly ahead of schedule to get a new one more likely to acquiesce to his political wish list. Al-Najjar’s intuition was based on his observation that alternating Kuwaiti parliaments end prematurely; therefore, the 2003 body was unlikely to sit for a full four years because its predecessor had served to the end. Both men were gratified to be proven correct, though neither had foreseen what would cause the emir to send the legislators home.

The precipitating event—the tree falling in the forest—was a popular movement committed to shrinking Kuwait’s 25 electoral districts into five large constituencies. From Jordan to Texas, redistricting is a ruling party tactic for ensuring “safe” seats for handpicked yes-men, but in Kuwait, it became the cause of reformers seeking to curtail vote buying and other illicit, but tried-and-true methods for influencing electoral results. Larger districts, the reformers believed, would render these shenanigans costlier and more difficult.

The emir himself was caught off guard when, in May, the long-running struggle to redraw districts suddenly attracted thousands of vociferous supporters to a broadly based movement spearheaded by young Kuwaitis. The young activists were equally surprised by how rapidly public opinion rallied to their cause, which had languished in Parliament for more than three years. Indeed, the intensity of the movement forced the emir’s hand. Whether he had planned an early election to get himself a more compliant legislature or not, Sheikh Sabah was compelled to intervene to deflect surging forces whose rallying cry was a condemnation of corruption. The emir’s action ensured at least one more election under the old system, but it too produced surprises: victories for 35 candidates from across the political spectrum who had been endorsed by the anti-corruption movement in return for pledges to fight corruption if they were elected. 

Kuwaiti women, gearing up for the first national election in which they would be equal participants, were also surprised, and most unpleasantly. Those contemplating a run for Parliament in July 2007 were suddenly confronted with having to decide whether to run immediately or wait another four years when they might actually be prepared. The ones who did jump in were hampered by an campaign environment in which the many issues they had advocated for so many years were overshadowed by the anti-corruption drive—and by corruption itself, some aimed at female voters. Feminist observers were not surprised that male politicians insisted throughout the campaign that the fight against corruption was the election’s main event. Their efforts succeeded in diminishing the domestic moral and political importance of Kuwaiti women’s first venture into national politics, although women’s participation was the main event for the international press. The press accurately reported that, though 28 women were on ballots across the nation on election day, none came even close to winning a seat in Parliament, but then let women down with superficial reporting on female voter turnout. 

In fact, female voters showed tremendous enthusiasm for politics. Women of all ages, classes and costume preferences poured out of their houses to engage with gusto in campaign events all across the country. Even staunch male opponents of women’s political rights found themselves facing sharp questions from women at their campaign tents. Serious candidates of every persuasion felt compelled to set up women’s committees, while evening visits to campaign tents and speakers’ forums found female staff and visitors in attendance whether programs were scheduled or not. Kuwaitis generally—although for different reasons—expressed surprise at how women voted. Like men, some voted their interests; others their religion; others in response (or reaction) to family and social pressures. Some were attracted by candidates’ lavish hospitality and boyish charm; perhaps more than a few were seduced by Chanel handbags and the same cold, hard cash that induces Kuwaiti men to sell their votes.

The whole nation was surprised by the transformation of national politics revealed during the election cycle. Successful campaigns were more national than local—even appeals by so-called “service members,” whose stock in trade is to channel favors to constituents in return for votes, were cloaked in national-interest rhetoric, while the very concept of service member was criticized by secular and religious opponents, as well as by voters, throughout the campaign. It is unclear how responsive the ruling family and its government will be to this sea change in Kuwaiti politics. Although the new cabinet omits the two members most parliamentarians had opposed, both were given high-level positions and one, Sheikh Fahd al-Ahmad, has ministerial status. The new parliament also has problems, not the least of which is a government proposal for redistricting that it approved without amendment in its post-election session. The plan has its critics in Parliament, and even the chief parliamentary proponent of a five-district plan, ‘Ali al-Rashid, said that amendments would be discussed after the bill was approved. 

The nation’s capacity for coping with future surprises may be tested as early as the fall. Expectations of conflict are reflected in the widespread belief that the 2006 parliament will not serve a full four-year term (although most Kuwaitis would be grateful for a surprise on that count). Many expect a renewal of confrontation over items on the emir’s agenda, such as Project Kuwait, a plan for limited oil sector privatization. Meanwhile, the Lebanon war and its repercussions inside Kuwait threaten heightened sectarian strife, possibly aggravated by the redistricting plan, which was strongly opposed by Kuwaiti Shi‘a. Given repeated miscalculations by so many during the first half of 2006, any thinking that the annus mirabilis is over is likely to be wishful at best. 

Why Are All Those People Wearing Orange?

The first surprise confronted by the new emir and his allies was the eruption of popular dissent over redistricting. The electoral system had been imposed unilaterally by the late Jabir al-Ahmad in 1981, and had been fought off and on by the political opposition ever since. During the spring 2006 push to reduce the number of constituencies, young Kuwaitis stepped forward to organize a series of demonstrations in favor of a five-district plan. The core group of activists numbered about a dozen young women and men, including Khalid al-Fadhala, Fatima al-Hayat, Dana al-Mutawwa‘ and Jasim al-Qamis. They organized the first “We want five” demonstration on impulse, sending text messages to friends to gather outside the Sayf Palace on May 5, when a cabinet meeting was scheduled. 

The success of this event was another surprise. Text messages were forwarded to friends of friends, and about 200 young Kuwaitis wearing orange T-shirts and waving orange flags showed up in front of the palace, startling ministers as they drove in to their meeting and again as they came out. “The prime minister waved to us,” one activist reported. “And we heard in diwaniyyas [regular open meetings held in private homes] that they kept asking why was everyone wearing orange.” Press coverage and word of mouth ensured that news of the demonstration would spread, but neither guaranteed the intense popular interest it generated. The warm reception sparked a decision to hold another rally, at night, outside the parliament the following week. More than 500 gathered to hear speeches by young activists, further encouraging the organizers to call for another demonstration a week later. 

That demonstration began on Sunday, May 14, with “flag night,” said one organizer. “If you pass by and if you are with us, you can plant a Kuwaiti flag in the grass in front of the parliament building [on the median]. We were there all night. It was huge. Maybe 1,000 people and even MPs came out that night, seven or eight, after the 29 [supporting the five-district plan] had a meeting…. Volunteers slept on the grass.” The organizers cut strips of orange cloth from large bolts of fabric and handed them to the demonstrators so they could identify themselves as part of what was already being called the “Orange Movement.” The next morning, the demonstrators entered the National Assembly to place orange leaflets on the desks of cabinet ministers and MPs, and then took seats in the gallery. “[Our] message to the ministers and MPs [was] that we the people are basically upset and demand a change,” said another organizer. “We mentioned our founding fathers. They acquired this country for us and you treat it cheaply. We distributed the leaflets on their desks and from up in the gallery all you could see was orange.” The government countered with a ten-district proposal drawn either so ineptly or so cleverly that it seemed designed to trigger the antagonism it quickly provoked. When redistricting proponents resisted the ploy, a cabinet member proposed forwarding the plan to the Constitutional Court, an apparent delaying tactic. As soon as the roll call indicated that the ten-district proposal would have government support, all 29 proponents of five districts rose and left the building. “Two MPs left, [Ahmad al-]Saadoun and another, and then all 29 rose and left,” reported a third organizer. “It was not organized. It just happened. The people in the gallery went crazy. The parliamentary session was postponed until the next day. We decided to gather the next morning to do it again.”

But when demonstrators converged on the National Assembly building the following morning, May 16, they found it surrounded by police and special forces dressed in riot gear and armed with batons. A number of MPs came outside to stand with the protesters. Despite parliamentary immunity, all were pushed back from the gate by special forces granted entry by the speaker. In the scuffle, at least one demonstrator was struck with a baton and knocked to the ground. Angry, the MPs refused an appeal to come in and vote, choosing to remain outside with the demonstrators and join them in making speeches. Ahmad al-Saadoun called a public meeting at the parliament that evening, which also happened to be the first anniversary of the passage of the women’s rights law. Perhaps 4,000 persons gathered that night, but entry to the building was blocked by special forces once again. More speeches were made—some of them, according to the Orange organizers, extraordinarily impassioned. The next day, the emir dissolved the parliament and called for new elections. Over those four tumultuous days, orange insignia went from being logos of the youth movement to markers of support for the five-district plan. After the campaign started, and in response to public reaction, orange paraphernalia was sported and distributed by a wide range of parliamentary candidates seeking to get on the train before it left the station. 

Feminists’ Dilemmas

The sudden election, made even more abrupt by the emir’s decision to truncate the allotted 60 days between a parliamentary dissolution and the election of a new parliament to only six weeks (all coinciding with World Cup matches), required women who had been thinking about running for parliament in July 2007 to make difficult decisions. In the end, few politically prominent women chose to enter the fray on such short notice. Despite notable exceptions like Rula Dashti, a businesswoman, chair of the Economists Society and long-time woman’s rights activist, Fatima al-‘Abdali, an employee of Kuwait’s national oil company and a long-time environmental and women’s rights activist, and Nabila al-Anjari, the daughter of a member of Parliament and herself a former Interior Ministry employee and head of Kuwait’s tourism bureau, most of the female candidates were not well-known as political actors. Few commanded sufficient resources to compete against well-heeled male opponents.

Among the political newcomers was Fatima al-Mutayri, a member of the large Mutayr tribe that dominates the old District 17. Al-Mutayri, a divorced woman with four sons, lives in District 21, in Sabah al-Salim, a shabby housing block reserved for widows and divorcées and their children. She admits that her family was not enthusiastic about her decision to run, but insists that, in the end, her brothers and sons supported her. Her friends tell a different story: her family “cut off her cell phone,” they say, forcing her to get a new cell phone number, and prevented friends and supporters from reaching her until late in the campaign season. 

Al-Mutayri’s campaign posters also hint at another story. It is logical to assume that a tribal candidate would choose to run in the district where her clan is concentrated. Some of the cards al-Mutayri handed out to potential voters identified her as running in District 21, but others, distributed at the very end of the campaign, showed the number 17 crossed out with ballpoint pen and 21 written in. Had she started out wanting to run in District 17? And had she used the amended “17” cards because she could not afford to replace them? 

Money, or lack thereof, was a big part of the story of the majority of female candidates. Al-Mutayri and her friends constantly lamented a dearth of financial resources. She could only afford two campaign events, each of which required renting a hall and providing a buffet (a supporter paid for the food both times). Her largest expenditure, for campaign posters, was wasted, as her posters were removed and “thrown in the desert” as soon as they were put up. She was also attacked by male constituents. “The bedouins speak harshly to me. They say ‘go home, stay home with your children’.” Yet despite these and other disadvantages, ranging from the lack of a campaign committee to malfunctioning sound systems, al-Mutayri proved to be an inspiring speaker who elicited ardent responses. The women and men who spoke on her behalf at her last event included a noted attorney, two clinical psychologists and two poets. In spite of these endorsements, however, she attracted only 2.5 percent of the votes in her district, although one third of them came from men.

Fatima al-Mutayri was the poster child for poorly funded female candidates. A fortunate few, such as Dashti and al-Anjari, had vast resources. One observer reports that Dashti’s campaign launch was “like Hollywood.” Dashti also is an energetic speaker and attracted noted personages to her gatherings to speak on her behalf. Otherwise, her campaign was as different from al-Mutayri’s as one could imagine. Dashti’s posters were visible all over her district; she kept up a large campaign tent with a skeleton staff even when no event was scheduled; the many events held in her tent were well-attended and ended with full buffets. Her campaign was well-managed technically and politically. She was advised by Nadya al-Sharrah, a highly respected economist and political activist who also advised the campaigns of Ahmad al-Saadoun, a former National Assembly speaker, and Muhammad al-Saqr, a member of one of Kuwait’s most important merchant families. 

Yet Dashti, too, faced gendered resistance in her district, a heavily Shi‘i suburban area that includes a university and many foreign embassies. Men criticized her “high-pitched” voice and her accent (her mother is Lebanese). “I hate to listen to a screeching Lebanese woman,” groused one male critic. Other prominent female candidates were subjected to similar slights. They were “pretty airheads” (Nabila al-Anjari) or “too aggressive” (‘Aisha al-Rushayyid, Fatima al-‘Abdali). Posters were battlefields for some gendered attacks. Mustaches and sometimes beards were drawn on portraits of al-Anjari and al-‘Abdali; the face on many of al-Rushayyid’s posters was excised by triangular slashes with exacto knives, leaving an image eerily reminiscent of the doctored representations of Thomas Becket in old English churches. 

In a campaign noteworthy for media innovations that disseminated public criticism of candidates widely, however, most female candidates eschewed personal attacks to emphasize their programs. They called attention to the financial problems of divorcées, widows and children, and the unequal treatment of women married to non-Kuwaitis, all the result of gendered state policies regarding entitlements and nationality. They focused on economic issues such as youth unemployment and the lack of planning for Kuwait’s post-hydrocarbon future, and repeatedly pointed to the marked deterioration in health care and public education. Yet all of these issues were overshadowed by popular revulsion at government corruption. 

Leagues of Women Voters

The expectation that few women would vote was reflected in the lack of planning for the needs of these new voters. There were no government instructions for voters until a few days before the election. Individual candidates and the Women’s Cultural and Social Society provided most of the basic technical information, such as the type of identification needed to get a ballot, and how to mark that ballot to ensure that it would not be disqualified. On election day there were not enough polling stations or personnel where women went to vote. Those who voted in the morning had to wait outside, some longer than two hours, in heat that soon exceeded 100 degrees. A large number of women voters were elderly and some were illiterate. In these cases, a judge heard the voter’s verbal choices and marked her ballot for her. In contrast, in tribal areas, procedures had been worked out for veiled women. Their faces could be unveiled discreetly to a female poll worker who checked their ID photos while the male judge ostentatiously averted his gaze. No logistical provisions were made for elderly or infirm voters, many of whom came in wheelchairs. Some judges let them move ahead in the line. Others made them wait their turns. There were not enough poll workers to ensure that the long voter lines would be orderly even for the ambulatory, while concern that women would make mistakes marking their ballots led some judges to instruct each female voter individually whether she asked for help or not. Consequently, the lines moved so slowly that some women gave up in disgust and went home without voting, eliciting several dark comments about Ohio in a line I stood in that day.

In spite of the problems, however, for the women voting June 29 was a red-letter day. I waited in three different lines with long-time friends. Thanks to press credentials, my camera and I were permitted to enter the voting room with each of them, allowing me to photograph the moment when each marked her first ballot. Like my friends, the crowds outside the women’s polling stations were jubilant. Adding to the crush of electioneers working for their candidates until the very last minute were masses of voters recounting their feelings upon casting their first ballots, complaining about the long lines, and calling friends and relations on cell phones to encourage them to come out and vote, too. Although the women I talked to afterward were disappointed that no female candidate had won a parliamentary seat, all expressed satisfaction at having been able to make their own political choices at last. 

Media Innovations

Like the orange-clad protesters, candidates sent reams of text messages, using lists of cell phone numbers generated from records of attendees asked to sign in at events. Some messages, featuring rumor and gossip, were campaign tricks designed to make another candidate look bad. Most focused on thanking the recipient for his or her support and offered information about the candidate’s next event. 

Blogs were a more important innovation. Voters could read some of the more sensational blog postings in daily newspapers. The Orange Movement leadership maintains a blog originating in the United States, managed jointly by overseas Kuwaiti students and one of the Orange organizers. This blog, KuwaitJunior, provided running news and commentary during the emiri transition in January 2006. During the campaign, it brought electoral corruption into the public eye thanks to a posting by a woman who recounted how two men in Rula Dashti’s district had attempted to buy her vote with the promise of a Chanel handbag. Although she did not mention the candidate’s name, it soon became public knowledge that she was speaking of Jamal al-‘Umar. The Orange leadership investigated this allegation by dispatching an undercover member, armed with a small video camera, to negotiate with the vote buyers. The camera failed, but the agent managed to capture pictures and voices on her cell phone. Then four young men who were not Orange organizers decided to challenge al-‘Umar during an event at his tent in Jabriyya southeast of Kuwait City. They asked him to explain why people were buying votes on his behalf if he was innocent of corruption as he claimed. The youths were roughed up and thrown out by the candidate’s assistants and, adding insult to injury, the Jabriyya police refused to accept their assault complaint. The worst part of the story came at the end, when al-‘Umar came in second, thereby winning a seat in the 2006 parliament. 

A third media innovation came from broadcasts sent via private satellite stations into Kuwait. These broadcasts consisted primarily of videotapes of candidate forums, speeches and debates. The programs provided by the Alliance, a two-year old opposition umbrella group, featured speakers critical of the government and prominent in the movement for redistricting. The information minister tried to shut these satellite broadcasts down, arguing that they did not cover all the candidates equally and therefore were biased—the same reason commonly given for why state-owned electronic media do not cover campaign events. The government put pressure on ArabSat, the broadcaster, to stop carrying the programs. When ArabSat complied, the Alliance shifted its broadcasts to HotBird, a service fewer Kuwaitis subscribe to, but KuwaitJunior and other blogs posted links offering streaming video for those without TV access. 

The new media did their part, but Kuwaitis themselves were the main engines nationalizing the election. Candidates invited people running from other districts to speak at their events. Voters, female and male, consistently roamed beyond their districts to hear speeches by well-known candidates and supporters in other areas. Candidates can run in any district, but voters must vote in the district of their recorded residence (which is not necessarily where they actually live, a story for another time). Despite the limited fluidity these rules offer, the prospect of voters putting electoral coalitions together from a large and diverse roster of candidates would mark a significant change in the locus of political agency. It concerns not only the government, which benefits from a relatively predictable set of MP interests stemming from the 25-district system, but also candidates and the interests they represent, many of whom would put relatively safe seats at risk by enlarging the pool of choices available to voters. The friend who accompanied me to Fatima al-Mutayri’s event told her: “If there was a single constituency in Kuwait, I would give one of my votes to you.” 

Most headlines after the votes were counted reported that Islamists had won the elections in Kuwait. Many Islamists did win, but the reasons why go beyond the strength of religious motivations to include the decision of the liberal Alliance to back candidates who supported redistricting and the fight against corruption regardless of their other leanings. This backing went beyond mere lip service to include campaigning for declared reformers by young Orange activists. “Al-Muslim, an Islamist MP, had a seminar at Kuwait University,” one remarked. “I was there. I told him, ‘One of my goals is to bring you down.’ Now I am [working] for him.” 

This strategy was successful in producing a majority pledged to reform, but whether and how well this majority will work for reform remains to be seen. One Alliance leader justified the strategy as a way “to give reformers a better chance to get to Parliament. Everyone is fighting against the same ‘real government.’ The 29 alliance is not a number. It is a concept. The number does not matter. It is the concept they fight for.” Although the new parliament has already revealed its ambition to exercise close oversight by, among other things, asking for financial disclosures from top officials serving in cabinet ministries, it is still early days. Liberal-Islamist alliances have fallen apart before, most recently during the 1992 parliament, when victorious Islamists jettisoned their liberal allies to strike better bargains with the government. 

Islamist victories in 2006 also reflect political opportunism by Islamists, who “went Orange” in large numbers after the demonstrations revealed the popular appeal of the anti-corruption campaign, but do not share liberal commitments on other issues such as women’s rights. Potential tensions between liberals and Islamists sheltering under the same Alliance umbrella were evident in a rally against corruption held on June 24 in a parking lot in ‘Adiliyya near Hawali. Logistics for the meeting were under Islamist control. Men and women were asked to sit in separate sections, three reserved for men and only one for women. Liberal women mounted a successful rebellion whose practical results were two all-male sections, one all-female section and a “family” (mixed-sex) section, the redoubt of the rebels, in the center of the action. Yet even relatively liberal candidates like Marzouq al-Ghanim segregated audiences by gender, not only providing separate tents for men and women but also policing the tents to ensure that the lines were not crossed. 

The “Women’s Vote”

A Clausewitz of elections would have a lot to say about the “fog of voting.” Like wars, elections are irrational events, bereft of unique solutions to the problem of matching preferences to choices and all too subject to ephemera ranging from emotions to the weather. Yet like the outcomes of wars, elections are products of intention and performance. Just because the aggregated causes incorporate information from many sources whose intentions and performances differ does not make the results random. 

The same can be said for the “women’s vote” in Kuwait’s 2006 election. Kuwaiti feminists, male and female, were surprised that women voted overwhelmingly for men. The victory of Jamal al-‘Umar is viewed with particular sorrow; among women and men al-‘Umar outpolled the combined tallies of Rula Dashti, Nabila al-Anjari and the three other women running in District 10. Could those dinar-packed Chanel handbags have had anything to do with it? Even if corruption was a factor, this is not to say that women voted the same way as the men in their families, which, according to two parliament staffers, had been the government’s assumption going into the election. Another cause for regret was that so many women voted for men whose entire careers had been devoted to keeping women down. Anguished supporters of long-time liberal feminist ‘Abdallah Nibari saw the women’s vote in District 2 as a betrayal. “Women sent back to Parliament the ones who abuse their rights,” one lamented. “My God, why did they do this to us?”

Women were also castigated because turnout figures show them to have voted at lower rates than men. At least part of the low turnout story, however, is an artifact of measurement. Potential male voters were required to register during the normal time set aside for this activity in Kuwait—the month of February. Many who had moved or come of age since the last election were not registered in June 2006 because they expected to register in February 2007, well ahead of the scheduled summer election. Also, men who are not political do not even bother to register. Women were treated differently. With some exceptions arising from technical errors, all women of voting age were automatically registered using civil ID data whether they had gone to register in February or not. The government ordered this measure out of concern that the unexpected election would deprive women anticipating their first vote in 2007 of their new legal rights. As a result, the figures for male and female voters are based on different denominators, and hence to compare them is misleading. In fact, Kuwaiti MPs are talking about changing the law to have this far easier system apply to men as well. 

All in all, for a first run in a country where the right of women to vote and compete for public office was obtained not through a free vote of the National Assembly but rather through arm twisting and payoffs, the outcome does not seem so bleak. It will take time for women and men in Kuwait to adjust to the new reality of women as political agents, creatures whose choices can be every bit as rational or irrational as those of their menfolk. Despite disappointments, the 2006 election was a good start to Kuwaiti women’s autonomous political life. It demonstrated, in addition to their professionalism and credibility as candidates, their ability to take defeat with grace. When public opinion catches up with the new legal regime, female candidates probably will do much better.

Democratization

All of which brings us back to democracy and Kuwait’s year full of miracles. As political scientist Eleanor Doumato has observed, women’s rights in the Arab Gulf states are the gift of monarchs, not parliaments. This is certainly the case in Kuwait, where opinion polls taken before the electoral law was changed in May 2005 showed a discouraging lack of support for female candidates, although more for female voters. The role of democracy in the 2006 election should be considered in broader terms than that, however. That there was an election at all was even more indicative of expectations that a democratic process should—and did—exist in Kuwait. The demonstrations that helped bring down the government were non-violent, as was virtually all of the official response to them. The new emir may have acted precipitously in canceling the parliamentary session and calling a new election—and the speaker of the parliament later excoriated this decision publicly as unnecessarily confrontational. Yet only 20 years ago, a Kuwaiti emir dissolved a parliament and did not call for a new election until invasion, war and liberation made it impossible for him to continue resisting demands for the restoration of constitutional life.

These demands came from Kuwaitis, through a long and occasionally frightening period when street demonstrations were met with more than the possibly accidental injury of one person by a policeman’s baton. The pro-democracy movement of 1989-1990 saw more widespread beating of demonstrators, along with the desecration of a mosque by tear gas and police dogs, and the arrest of more than a dozen prominent dissidents. Demands for reform came from outside, too, not only from exiles abroad during the Iraqi occupation, but also from countries that, having sent troops to liberate Kuwait, expected its leaders to behave better than the ousted invader. Despite clerical and even popular criticism, after liberation foreign ambassadors and NGOs pressed for women’s rights, protection for stateless persons, better treatment of maids and other foreign workers, and structural changes to open Kuwait’s economy and political system. That each of these causes was also advocated by Kuwaitis does not diminish the usefulness of external support from those whose good opinion Kuwaiti leaders value. Such external advocacy is not only an additional check on backsliding toward a more authoritarian past, but is also evidence that other governments support democratization in the Middle East.

Jamie Meyerfeld, writing in support of the International Criminal Court, emphasizes the role of external checks to support democracy. “Like Ulysses tied to the mast…democracies steel themselves against future unwise temptations…. It is astonishing that [102] countries have voluntarily agreed to make their own leaders vulnerable to prosecution and punishment before an international court.” Similarly, international observers add to the checks exercised by national constituents of governments. These national watchers are more important, of course, but a little encouragement from outside can reinforce their efforts to build democratic institutions, and discourage governments impatient with the noisy demands of democratic politics from shutting those institutions down. If the international community were serious about democratization, no pillar of authoritarianism would fall without an attentive audience listening for the crash.

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