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Kuwait pro-democracy protesters defy the odds

For the third time in two weeks, Kuwaitis succeeded in mobilising tens of thousands of demonstrators to deliver a message demanding change

Sherine Bahaa , Friday 9 Nov 2012
Kuwait
Kuwaiti anti- government protesters walk down Fahed Al Salem Street during a demonstration in Kuwait City on Sunday, October 21, 2012 (Photo: AP)
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The Kuwaiti opposition is playing it by ear. They took to the street 21 October and said it outloud: “We will not allow you!” No one listened. To send a message is one thing, but to have it comprehended is another.

A week later, the standoff between Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah and the opposition took another turn when tens of thousands of activists gathered around the central prison in Sulaibiya district where prominent MP MussallamBarrak was detained.

Barrak is chargedwith “undermining the status of the emir,” in a speechon 15 October.

Barrak, a parliamentarian and hardcore activist, was the one who coined the slogan “We will not allow you!” that shook the streets of Kuwait in protests.

Kuwaitis are protesting changes to an electoral law announced last month by ruler Sheikh Sabah.Some opposition politicians have said the changes are an attempt to give pro-government candidates an advantage in parliamentary elections1 December.

Sheikh Sabah issued a decree in October reducing the number of votes cast by each citizen from four to one. The decree will also make it harder for the opposition to form coalitions, giving an edge to pro-government candidates.

The government says the amendments were needed to preserve national unity.Registration for candidates standing in the coming elections started 1 November and will end tomorrow (Nov 10).

As tension mounted, a further escalation was scheduled this week. A series of warnings by Kuwaiti officials, rising to the level of threats, and remarks about resorting to all means to crush signs of dissent, filled all media outlets.

Furthermore, Barrak, the Islamist MP who reaped the highest numbers of votes in February’s parliamentary elections, confirmed leaked reports about the presence of 3500 Jordanian officers that arrived to Kuwait to help in cracking down on the 4 November march.

“Those mercenaries (Jordanian forces) who were brought to Kuwait by Jordan’s monarch are the same people who betrayed Kuwait during Iraq’s invasion in 1990,” Barrak said.

Barrak even reminded Kuwaitis of the slogans that Jordanian forces used during the invasion: “Saddam will rule from Kuwait to Dammam.” Jordanian government officials declined to comment on Barrak’saccusations.

“Dignity of Nation 2”— the name of this week’s protest march — came on time. Protestors had to change the location and route of the demonstration after riot police and elite forces backed by armoured vessels sealed off all roads and sites that demonstrators had set for their march.

Still, thousands of people still managed to get through and immediately started protesting.They briefly cut off the sixth ring road, the main motorway in the south of Kuwait, before calling off the demonstration barely an hour after it began.


“Peacefulness of the demonstration” was a prime objective for the protest’s organisers. “We will remain peaceful whatever the cost,” organisers said on Twitter. “The peaceful march is a duty, a pledge and a commitment.”

Riot police did not hesitate to resort to stun grenades, smoke bombs and tear gas to disperse the demonstration before organisers later announced the end of the protest. According to organisers, the march was“a success,”but they refrained from settingdates for further demonstrations.
Activists said dozens were arrested while there were no reports about anyone wounded.

“After we have expressed our message of rejecting any play in the constitution, we announce the end of the procession,” said organisers on their Twitter account,named “The Dignity of a Nation.”

The emir’s reply to the opposition was in a speechthe following day,indicating that the message was delivered,thoughhe did not take it well.

On Monday, the emir gave a speech in which he vented his wrath. “I have been struck with feelings of pain, sorrow and concern because of the regrettable developments,”he said in a televised speech.

“The practices of deviation, violence and chaos have sparked fear and anxiety,” the emir said. Sheikh Sabah accused the opposition of breaking the law by organising “illegal” rallies.

Defusing the crisis is something only the emir can achieve.

The protests that took place did not target the royal family, and Sheikh Sabah is fully aware of this fact. But how long that will last is anyone’s guess. In a number of Arab countries, uprisings started with calls for democracy and reform, but shortly turned to the demand: “The people want the fall of the regime.”

In a last ditch move before the beginning of the march, Sheikh Sabah called for a meeting Sunday with four opposition figures, including two former Islamist MPs in what appeared to be a mediation effort aimed at ending the stalemate.

Former MP Mohammad Hayef said on Twitter that the emir told them he would accept that Constitutional Court’s ruling on a disputed amendment to the electoral law, which triggered the current standoff. 
It was the first official meeting between the emir and the opposition since the dispute began several weeks ago.

Long envied for its relatively democratic profile, Kuwait has an elected parliament with legislative powers. The Kuwaiti parliament confirms governments, passes laws presented by the cabinet and oversees the performance of various ministries.

Protesting, as well, for domestic issues has always been an option, with violence rare.Earlier protests have been confined to the square surrounding the parliament,but in recent weeks demonstrations spread to the streets beyond and resulted in clashes, with small numbers needing hospital treatment.

“The protest is not just about the voting rules now,” said Ahmad Al-Deyain, a general coordinator for one of Kuwait’s opposition groups. “The people want real democratic evolution; they want parliamentary authority. The authorities want to monopolise power,” he said. “There are two different visions and there is no room for compromise.”

Opposition politicians have said they will boycott parliamentary elections next month — the second time Kuwait will go to the polls in 2012.


The brewing political dilemma is becoming obvious in the tiny emirate. Demonstrating Kuwait’s sensitivity to media coverage of the ongoing standoff, the oil rich state allegedly paid large sums of money to both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya satellite networks to ignore the most recent march, ostensibly to hide the increasing fragility of its political scene.

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