October 24, 2012 5:49 pm

Kuwait political crisis deepens

Kuwait’s opposition is gearing up for a mass public sit-in on Thursday as the authorities attempt to sidestep criticism of a crackdown this week and local media blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the trouble.

Opposition members – who include followers of tribal and Islamist former MPs – have reacted angrily to the claims about them and vowed to gather despite the tough reaction to one of the country’s biggest ever protests on Sunday.

The deepening political crisis in this leading oil producer long held up as the Gulf’s most democratic states resonates in neighbouring autocratic monarchies, some of whom present themselves as facing a threat from Islamic or sectarian extremism.

“The problem for Kuwait’s ruling family with the escalating protest is that it could reach a tipping point where they are no longer in control of events,” said Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a Gulf specialist at the London School of Economics. “Change in Kuwait holds lessons for other Gulf countries: will it be incremental and consensual, or will it be violent and forced?”

Members of Kuwait’s opposition plan to assemble in Kuwait City’s Erada Square to break their fast for the imminent Eid al-Adha religious holiday, activists said, despite an official ban on gatherings of more than 20 people imposed after Sunday’s demonstration.

“People can’t play football if that rule is true,” said one pro-reform activist. “All they want is the green light for violence.”

At least 29 people were injured and 15 were detained at Sunday’s demonstration, where witnesses said security forces used sound bombs and tear gas against peaceful protesters. The tens of thousands-strong gathering was triggered by changes to the electoral process that opposition members claim will hobble them in a parliamentary poll due in December.

Tareq al-Mezrem, a Kuwait government spokesman, said the government would allow people to gather in Erada square but warned they would face action if they stepped “one metre outside”.

The security forces’ actions on Sunday were proportionate, he said, and consistent with the response of “any civilised country” towards a mass city centre demonstration held without first seeking official approval. “The government was clear: don’t march in the street, don’t stop the life of the city,” he said. “Even in New York they wouldn’t allow this.”

Political disagreements are not new in Kuwait, which – uniquely in the Gulf – has an elected parliament, even if ultimate authority is still exercised by the emir and other members of the ruling al-Sabah family. But many Kuwaitis, not all of them opposed to their rulers, have expressed shock at the harshness of the security crackdown.

Alanoud al-Sharekh, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who formerly worked for Kuwait’s National Security Bureau, said many liberals and moderate pro-reform Kuwaitis were now in an “uncomfortable position”, disapproving of both violent protests and the official clampdown.

The media in Kuwait – much of it linked to the ruling establishment – claims the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the protests, but opposition activists deny this. The dispute echoes events in the United Arab Emirates, where authorities have detained dozens of opponents whom they say are criminal Islamist extremists – a claim rejected by many rights activists and associates of those being held.

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