Last updated: April 22, 2013 4:40 pm

Kuwait should set an example on dissent

Battling sides must show an alternative to use of force

Sulaiman bin Jassem, a Kuwaiti opposition activist, says he was assaulted by several security force members at a protest last week – but one of his attackers sticks particularly in his mind.

“What was funny is that, as he was beating me, he was telling me: ‘Aren’t we all humans? Aren’t we all Kuwaitis?’ recalled Mr bin Jassem, who said he was kicked, punched and hit by two rubber bullets, even though the authorities deny using them. “I was thinking exactly the same thing.”

The mutual incomprehension goes to the heart of a growing conflict that is a test of both Kuwait’s regionally unique system of semi-democracy and the way autocracies elsewhere in the Gulf deal with dissent

As Musallam al-Barrak, a Kuwait opposition leader, was granted bail on Monday to fight a five-year jail sentence for insulting the country’s emir, the political pressures highlighted by his case are part of a wider challenge – strong in some states, slight in others – to traditional Arabian Peninsula political orders.

Most countries seem set on the path of clamping down: Bahrain has brutally suppressed an uprising for more than two years, while activists have been jailed in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

In Kuwait, supporters of Mr al-Barrak have swarmed in the past week over his large headquarters and gardens in a suburb of Kuwait City, after their man was sentenced on April 15 over a speech in which he said he would not allow Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah to run an autocracy. Police swooped on the building on April 17 but found Mr al-Barrak gone, activists said, sparking a street demonstration in which protesters were tear gassed and at least 18 arrested. Mr bin Jassem – who was released along with other detainees on April 20 – says he was videoing the event, where protesters set light to rubbish bins, scattered debris on the road and threw stones at security forces.

The violence on both sides – together with several of what activists say are hundreds of detentions of Twitter critics and others – has shocked many Kuwaitis who are used to what is, by Gulf standards, vigorous public debate. While there are still clearly defined limits on representation and freedom of expression – the emir is the hereditary ultimate authority and is constitutionally inviolable – the country does have an elected parliament that in 2011 deposed a prime minister and exposed corruption allegations against his cabinet and pro-government lawmakers. Kuwaitis are often open about their views, even on first meeting, with little of the public pretence found in some other Gulf countries that rulers make only wise decisions and oversee relentless progress.

On one level, Kuwait’s turbulence is another case of Arab uprising regional contagion. Kuwaiti activists buoyed by their relative existing freedom are testing further the transient nature of power acknowledged in an inscription above the main gate at Kuwait City’s Seif Palace: “If it had lasted for others, it would not have reached you.” The authorities say they are merely enforcing the law in response.

But – while the wider Middle East political turmoil clearly plays its part in Kuwait – there is a deeper story in the country’s broad opposition movement of long-term social change. Kuwait’s protests are driven in good part by descendants of the once-nomadic desert bedu people, who are growing in numbers and feel shut out of the wealth, education and power enjoyed by the rulers and their merchant family backers.

Other strands of opposition are Islamists, liberals who favour more political freedom, and ambitious young people who want more from life than state handouts and the gilded cage of well-paid but pointless government jobs. There is much to divide these groups as well as unite them: some see Mr al-Barrak as an opportunist, while liberals were horrified when the opposition-dominated parliament last year passed a law – later blocked by the emir – imposing the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammed and his relatives.

In some ways, the currents of disenfranchisement, disaffection and anti-elitism in Kuwait – and to varying extents in other Gulf countries – have less in common with uprisings against bloody tyrannies in Libya and Syria than with the Occupy-style protests in the west. So far, Gulf states have responded to the demands and criticisms by using force or imprisonment. The crucial task facing all the forces battling in Kuwait – and particularly the country’s rulers – is to show that there is an alternative.

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