DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — WHEN Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah returns soon to liberated Kuwait, he will come not just as the crown prince and prime minister, but as martial governor general. His new unwieldy title was given just hours before Kuwaiti and Arab tanks arrived in the city, in a special decree issued by the emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah. Martial law, says the decree, is to be in effect for the next three months.
This declaration has not dampened the current euphoria of liberation. All over the Gulf, exiled Kuwaitis have been dancing in the streets, playing drums, and honking horns. But many predict that when the celebrations are over, the realization of what the martial law move may mean will sink in.
Sheikh Jaber's decision effectively ended, for now, any further debate on the country's political future. Unlike the lower Gulf states, Kuwait had a limited form of democracy before the ruling Sabah family suspended the Constitution in 1976 and again in 1985, despite opposition protests.
Though opposition members accept that a the Sabah family should head the state, they seek a more merit-based, rather than name-based government, committed to parliamentary rule.
Declaring martial law is likely to reinforce opposition suspicions that the Sabah's are not serious about a resumption of democracy nor a commitment to the 1962 Constitution. According to that Constitution, only Parliament can approve martial law after 15 days submission by the emir.
The decree will forbid all political assembly, and will allow the establishment of special martial law courts and the right of entry of security forces into private homes. All weapons in the hands of civilians are to be collected.
So far, there has been no formal opposition response, and many are reluctant to talk because of the implementation of martial law. However, in private comments, a political leader based in the United Arab Emirates summed up: ``The opinion of the opposition is the same as the Constitution. This is a bad beginning.''
``Human rights cannot be guaranteed under martial law without it being supervised by a parliament,'' says Ahmed Saadoun, a former deputy speaker of the National Assembly in a recent comment before the emir's announcement.
There is also concern that the three-month period could be extended. One opposition supporter, who would be identified only as Jamal, pointed out that there was no simultaneous announcement committing the government to democracy after the three-month period.
The issue of a return to democracy was being thrashed out the day before liberation in a meeting in a Jiddah hotel between 25 members of the opposition and the government. The conference was called by the government in response to a meeting planned in London by the opposition, at which 60 politicians had planned to establish a National Constitutional Front. The London forum was expected to call on the government to guarantee democracy and the formation of a government of national unity.
The battle for Kuwait's democracy will be watched avidly by the 10 million Gulf nationals who have been denied any formalized representation in decisionmaking. If the Kuwaiti democratic cause falters, then many Gulf citizens fear that the postwar era will see a strengthened system of sheikhly rule, backed by the military might of the United States.
American calls for greater representation in Gulf governments will, they fear, only result in consultative councils or majaalis as-shura, which have no power to veto the wishes of the king or ruling sheikh. The issue, they believe, is real democracy, or a fake version which guarantees the supremacy of the sheikhs. So far, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and the Sultan of Oman have spoken only of consultative councils.
The Kuwaiti team leading this battle are an unlikely group of `evolutionaries.' Most are businessmen, who represent all facets of Kuwaiti political life: Western-educated liberals, members of Islamic groups, and the powerful merchant community.
First and foremost in their demands, says Ahmed al-Rubai, one of their leaders, is an iron-clad guarantee from the Sabahs for an immediate return to democracy.
There is also fear that junior members of the 1,000-strong Sabah family want a return to a style of sheikhly rule such as exists in lower Gulf sheikhdoms, where democracy is taboo and sheikhs are virtually beyond the law.
There has also been some worrying talk, they say, from government ministers of the need to ``purify society'' of Iraqi intruders, and the need to assess just who deserves to be in Kuwait and who should not.
Badr al-Yacoub, Kuwait's minister of information, says the ``cleanup'' should be launched before the reestablishment of parliamentary life. Al-Yacoub also called on Kuwaitis to ``confront all those who seek to sow doubt in the unity of Kuwaiti ranks.''
The opposition fear that the so-called purification process could mean ``loyalty tests'' for the country's large foreign Arab population and possibly the 200,000-strong stateless Bedouin community. The creation of special courts allowed under martial law will only reinforce these fears. Dr. Yacoub denies this, but says that everyone will have to be ``studied.''
At present, the opposition is rescheduling their London conference for March 14. However, the urge to get home, see their families, and begin reconstruction could prove a greater pull than the need for democracy. As Suleiman, a Kuwait airways employee, put it: ``Yes, we must have democracy, but let's get the water on first.''