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Crackdown on Freedom of Expression

freedom of expression kuwait Human Rights
Opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak / Photo Flickr

Since October 2012, when opposition against the Emiri decree that changed the electoral law was voiced in the street and on social media, authorities mounted their crackdown on dissent. Dozens of protesters and Twitter users were arrested for expressing their views. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 35 people were prosecuted for offending the emir between October 2012 and July 2013. The most prominent example is opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak who, in April 2013, was sentenced to five years in jail for offending the emir, further enraging his supporters. Kuwait’s Court of Appeal later released al-Barrak on bail. A Kuwaiti Twitter user was sentenced in June 2013 to 11 years in jail, of which five years was for offending the emir. Another Twitter user was sentenced to five years in prison for a Twitter comment on Sunni/Shiite theology. In April 2013, the government proposed a new Unified Media Law to replace the 2006 Press and Publication Law and the 2007 Audio-Visual Media Law. This law has been criticized for creating new red lines for the media and closing down the space for public debate. It also criminalizes political comment, enabling authorities to prosecute people on the same charges, such ‘offending the emir’. Kuwait has been known as one of the most tolerant countries in the region when it comes to free speech. Kuwait’s political crisis and the ensuing crackdown have, however, hurt the country’s reputation.

The government, dominated by the ruling family, has used other tools to counter the demand for political reforms. In the wake of the election boycott by the opposition in December 2012, when another round of elections was planned, members of the ruling family reached out to tribal leaders to win their support and limit support for the opposition. It also initiated a campaign to win back the support of Kuwait’s younger generation. A National Youth Council was formed and given a platform to voice concerns through a national conference attended by the emir and speaker of the National Assembly. With youth demands that could be met immediately, the government hoped to establish credibility.

Continued deadlock

As the National Assembly elected in December 2012 was, in theory, pro-government, analysts expected that the elected National Assembly and appointed government would finally start cooperating and end the political stalemate. Better cooperation would advance the much needed reforms and implementation of Kuwait’s development plan. Indeed, the Assembly proved more conciliatory, and progress was thus made on several plans, such as major infrastructure projects, including water and power projects. The opposition was left isolated and enraged over the new electoral law that was first enforced by decree and later passed by the Assembly.

The cooperation between the Assembly and the government proved short-lived. On 16 June 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled the Assembly elected in December unconstitutional, due to technical irregularities in the emir’s decree that set up the National Election Commission in October 2012. It was the second time in a year that the Court had dismissed the Assembly and annulled election results. In addition, the Court upheld the emir’s decree changing the electoral-constituency law.

July 2013 Elections

Safa al-Hashem, one of the women who were elected / Photo Flickr

As a consequence of the ruling, new elections were held on 27 July 2013. With the boycott no longer popular, a higher voter participation of 51.9 percent was achieved, compared to only 40.8 percent in December, according to Election Guide. New, younger candidates proved more popular than veteran politicians. As many members of the tribes had decided to break with the opposition boycott of December, the elections this time led to a greater representation of tribes, but, with part of the opposition boycott still intact, independents won the majority of seats (47 out of 50). While independents are known to be more supportive of the government, deputies generally decide their attitude towards the government issue-by-issue and from time to time move in and out of the opposition.

Only three members of the opposition group that had formed a majority in Parliament in 2012, were reelected. Shiites lost nine seats, bringing their representation back to historic proportions, because many Sunni voters had now decided to participate again in the elections. Although only two women were elected, the relatively large number of new faces (26 out of 50) reflected voters’ desire for change.

With second elections held under the new one man-one vote system, the government achieved its intended outcome of undermining the tribal-Islamist opposition. Unlike the former four-vote system in place until October 2012, which benefited the tribal-Islamist (opposition) coalition, the new system empowers independent candidates not allied with the opposition. At the same time, the government succeeded in winning support from former backers of the opposition’s boycott. In an effort to further defuse political tensions, the emir, in July 2013, pardoned all those who had been convicted of offending him.

Despite the pro-government Assembly in place since the last elections, Kuwait’s political stalemate did not come to an end. Members of parliament continued to question ministers, blocking several government contracts, but this is also part of the power of the Kuwaiti parliament and a valid message, according to Dr. Shafeeq al-Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University. Aiming to improve relations with the Assembly, Prime Minister Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah announced a cabinet reshuffle in January 2014. It was the sixth government since he took office in 2011. Often, ministers are not willing or able to face grilling by parliamentarians and choose instead to resign.

Opposition

Members of the Civil Democratic Movement and Musallam al-Barrak / Photo Flickr

The opposition, isolated by its boycott of the December 2012 elections, could not agree on a common agenda and began to fall apart. While the opposition had been united in an ‘opposition majority’ in 2012, the question whether or not to boycott the July 2013 elections divided them. While the liberal National Democratic Alliance and the leaders of Kuwait’s largest tribes decided to participate in the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM, or HADAS) maintained its boycott because of the Kuwaiti government’s financial and political support for the military coup in Egypt. Other liberal, Islamist, and nationalist groups also maintained their boycott. Ideology also divides the opposition: while liberals favour more political freedom, Kuwaitis of Bedouin origin are motivated by their position subordinate to hadhar (settled) Kuwaitis.

Apart from the established opposition dominated by veteran politicians, Kuwait’s youth movements have become more active in recent years. They successfully called for the removal of former Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed, in November 2011. Instead of focusing on ideological lines, the youth have shifted to specific political goals, in order to push for a parliamentary system. Frustrated with the divided opposition movements, youth activists merged existing youth movements into the Civil Democratic Movement, in April 2012. The CDM (Arabic acronym HADAM) began a campaign to mobilize people and demand political reforms through constitutional changes.

Under pressure from these youth activists, the opposition has adopted the following goals to push for constitutional reforms:

1. legalization of political parties;

2. an elected cabinet that is formed by the majority in the National Assembly, instead of an appointed cabinet dominated by the royal family;

3. cancellation of the emir’s decree introducing the one-man—one-vote system.

In March 2013, opposition groups, including Islamists, nationalists, liberals, youth activists, and civil-society groups announced that they would form one coalition, called the Opposition Coalition. In its statement, the Coalition stressed the importance of political reform in solving the political crisis: a full parliamentary system, legalized political parties, an elected cabinet, and guaranteed independence of judges. The Coalition also called for the protection of freedoms, including that of expression.

Member of Opposition Coalition Juman al-Harbish
Juman al-Harbish, member of Opposition Coalition and HADAS / Photo @OpKuw

Despite the greater inclusiveness and popular backing of the Assembly elected in July, political reforms demanded by the opposition to address the broken relationship between the appointed government and elected Assembly have not been implemented. While a number of former opposition parliamentarians had been arrested, Musallam al-Barrak, the outspoken leader of the Opposition Coalition, has gained prominence and has become the symbol of the reform agenda. Although the opposition is hardly represented in the National Assembly,  it is still able to mobilize people. In February 2014, opposition was revived, when the opposition called for protests against the GCC Security Pact, which the opposition believes contradicts basic liberties protected in the constitution. A sit-in was held at Kuwait University after a seminar about the Pact had been canceled, reportedly under government pressure. According to al-Ghabra, the opposition poses no threat to the al-Sabah monarchy. There is broad consensus on the legitimacy of al-Sabah rule, and the opposition does not call for overthrow of the regime but is working to suggest constitutional reforms within the system.

The government has so far responded to calls for reforms with repression, while sustaining the social-welfare system and high living standards, in order to avert further protests, but this system is not sustainable in the near future. The International Monetary Fund  warned Kuwait in September 2013 that, despite a budget surplus, increasing public expenditures might surpass revenues by 2017. Al-Ghabra notes that reviving the stalled development of Kuwait will require a more representative form of government, in which the government will be more accountable to Kuwaiti citizens.

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