Kuwait braces for pro-democracy rallies

AFP , Monday 7 Mar 2011

Kuwait braced for demonstrations against the government on Tuesday as youth groups promised to take their campaign to oust the prime minister to the streets of the oil-rich emirate

Hundreds of stateless residents of Kuwait, known as bidoon, demonstrate for their rights in Sulaibiya, Feb. 19th. The banner in Arabic reads: "Even animals have ID and have rights, bidoons doesn't have a birth cetificate" (AP).

The Fifth Fence youth group has been using microblogging website Twitter to urge its supporters to join a rally coinciding with parliament's first meeting after a six-week break.

Opposition blocs representing Islamists, liberals and nationalists have separately demanded Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the nephew of the emir, step down after five years on the job.

"The first step toward reform is forming a new government under a new prime minister that should be capable of running the country and reforming imbalances," the nationalist Popular Action Bloc said in a statement last week.

The protests come at a time of tumult and upheaval across the Middle East which has seen the veteran autocratic rulers of Egypt and Tunisia swept from power and threatened the regimes of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.

New media like Facebook and Twitter played a key role in mobilising Egypt's young protesters and Fifth Fence is hoping to repeat the formula in Kuwait.

"The best solution is your (prime minister's) departure. Kuwait deserves better," one recent message on its Twitter feed said.

Another new youth group called Kafi, or "Enough" in Arabic, urged an "open and continuous" sit-in at a main square in Kuwait City "until our demands are achieved."

Those demands include a new prime minister and an end to corruption in the US ally, which has been ruled by the Al-Sabah family for more than 250 years without challenge.

Sheikh Nasser has fought parliamentary opposition since his appointment in early 2006. Five of his six cabinets were forced to resign and parliament was dissolved three times.

Opposition voices including the liberal Democratic Forum, which has one MP, and the Islamist Ummah Party, have called for a premier from outside the Al-Sabah family.
This "would prevent disputes and balances within the family from impacting the political management of the state," the Forum said in a statement Sunday.

The Ummah Party called last week for "legalising political parties, approving political pluralism and peaceful rotation of power, and the principle of elected government."

Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, currently outside Kuwait on a private visit, has so far ignored opposition demands to amend the 49-year-old constitution.

Kuwait, OPEC's fourth largest producer, prides itself on being the first Arab state in the Gulf to embrace parliamentary democracy and issue a constitution in 1962.

Its unique system has been criticised as a "half democracy" because of parliament's limited powers in approving or ousting the government.

In addition, all unelected cabinet ministers automatically become members of parliament and enjoy voting powers like elected MPs, which means the 50-member house is in fact only partially elected.

The Islamist Reform and Development Bloc, which has four MPs and several supporters in parliament, has called for constitutional amendments to prevent ministers from becoming members of parliament.

Fifteen of the current cabinet's 16 ministers, including six ruling family members, are unelected but can vote on almost all issues except no-confidence votes against fellow ministers.

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