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Challenging the Emir

Though the ruling al-Sabah family still tightly holds the reins, many Kuwaitis are determined to work toward democracy

By Barbara Nimri AzizBarbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and journalist based in New York. She frequently travels in the Middle East. / July 20, 1992



KUWAITIS inch toward an October election, sparring with their ruler, Sheik Jabar al-Sabah, over how much free speech and assembly is permissible.

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Last June, his country liberated, Kuwait's emir acceded to pressures for democratization and announced an autumn 1992 election, the first in seven years.

Kuwaitis hoped the occasion would reinstate their democracy. The emir's announcement was hailed, even though he offered little. Basic civil rights (protected by the Constitution, which itself remained suspended) were not restored; freedom of assembly is not permitted; press restrictions remained in effect.

Nevertheless, Kuwait's pro-democracy advocates see the anticipated election as their chance to put the country back on a democratic track. Despite the ban on public rallies (for which they were jailed a year before) the backers of democracy rallied.

Despite censorship, they criticized government; courting palace censure, they held democratic forums and organized party-like groups (parties too are banned, as is official use of the words "constitution," "democracy," and even "election," according to activists).

Kuwaiti opposition groups became more emboldened with the encouragement of foreign visitors and diplomats and the joy they felt after regaining their sovereignty.

Within a year of the liberation of Kuwait, however, the public was on notice: cease your criticism of government, said the prime minister Crown Prince Sheik Saad al-Sabah on March 26 of this year, or he would take tougher measures to enforce compliance.

There is little doubt that the emir regrets his agreement to an election. First, he has not followed through with his declaration that women and "alien-Kuwaitis" will be permitted to vote; second, he has not permitted press freedom; third, he has not consented to the initial understanding that his absolute powers would be suspended in preparation for the election scheduled for this fall.

Yet this does not deter the public. Many Kuwaitis continued to challenge the ruler, and they seem determined to regain their constitutional democracy.

During the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, many political figures endured hardships and even faced imprisonment. Kuwait Democratic Forum members Abdullah Nibari and Muhammad al-Qadiri, among many others, rejected offers to flee with their families. Today these nationalists are at the center of a growing group of citizens working towards the election and organized into four quasi-parties.

They dare to openly criticize their government. Some foreign ambassadors have regularly attended private diwaaniya gatherings hosted by pro-democracy advocates.

In January, an election campaign seminar was held. Attended by 50 key Kuwaiti opposition figures, it was organized by the Kuwaiti Graduate Society in association with the National Republican Institute for International Affairs (affiliated with the United States Republican Party). It was addressed by Rep. Robert Lagomarsino (R) of California, with a special message from President George Bush and US Secretary of State James Baker III.

Since February, the Kuwaiti rulers have taken a series of steps to curtail pro-democracy activities. A second electioneering seminar was planned. Abruptly, however, last month's workshop was canceled. So was a lecture on democracy by a US academician. And a Kuwait University-sponsored program never took place.

Among newspapers which are neither official nor pro-government, only the daily al-Qabbas remains. And US Ambassador Edward Gnehm continues to accept private invitations to the homes of pro-democratic figures at the expense of his friendship with the Sabahs.

Whatever the ruling Sabahs do, occasions continue to arise to demonstrate the vitality and threat of "people power." A major confrontation occurred a few weeks ago over the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce in Kuwait. Normally, the selection of officers to this agency is a quiet, uncontested affair.

It was never considered a political office. But now it became coveted by the Sabahs who recently have been actively distributing favors to friends who might represent Sabah interests in the election. Perhaps anticipating difficulties at the polls, it seems they decided the Chamber of Commerce was one institution they should control.

They put their own candidates forward only to be met by a tremendous backlash. The incumbent chairman Abdul Aziz Hamid al-Sagar is known for his consistant demands for the restoration of the constitution.

Normally, not more than 1,000 to 1,500 Kuwaitis participate in the election of chamber seats. This time, however, about 11,000 turned out to vote. The result: 23 of the 24 officers are with Sagar. It was a graphic refutation of government meddling.

"The occasion became a kind of plebicite for the opposition," says former parliamentarian Abdullah Nibari, now general secretary of the Kuwait Democratic Forum. The overwhelming support for Sagar's candidates was clearly a victory for the anti-government forces.

This recent tussle makes evident that the Sabahs are going to have a tough time holding onto the reins of absolute power.