Kuwaitis Raise Hopes for Democratic Reform

THE return home on March 4 of Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, the first member of the ruling family to end a seven-month exile in Saudi Arabia, marks the beginning of what promises to be a complex political process. Prince Saad, the emir's brother, is due to oversee a three-month period of martial law intended to stabilize Kuwait in the wake of occupation by Iraqi troops, before elections to a national assembly are held, officials have explained. His first task will be to speed up collection of thousands of weapons still in private hands and mountains of unguarded ammunition in Iraqi bunkers all over Kuwait City. Fears that these arms could be used to create political chaos are widespread.

``We are very weak now, and we are afraid of small groups that could make Kuwait like Lebanon,'' says Muhammad al-Muttawa, a resistance worker.

Many Kuwaitis suspect that the Iraqi forces left behind agents who will seek to sow confusion. A prominent member of the former national assembly, Hamad al-Johan, was gravely shot by a gunman who shouted that he was being punished for opposing the ruling family. Rumors that the ruling al-Sabah family have hired assassins to kill opposition figures were quick to fly.

The government will hold elections to the national assembly that it suspended in 1986 ``as soon as this country is under normal life,'' Minister for Cabinet Affairs Abd al-Rahman Abdullah al-Awadi announced March 3. This pledge echoed an agreement reached at a conference of Kuwaiti government and opposition figures reached at Taif, Saudi Arabia, last October, and many Kuwaitis appear to believe in the ruling family's sincerity.

``I trust in my government....I do not believe the government will break its promise,'' says Saleh al-Fadala, vice president of the last national assembly.

Some Kuwaitis are confident that the elections will be held because of pressure from the countries that fought to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. ``The United States, Britain, and France, they love democracy,'' suggests Moaz Khaled, a Kuwaiti who says he hopes for political reform. ``They will oblige our rulers to be more open.''

Others point to Kuwaitis' experience under occupation as encouraging demands for greater freedom. Neighborhood committees ``took the role of the government by supporting people in various social ways, providing assistance the government used to offer,'' Mr. Fadala points out.

Complications are expected to arise, however, not least between Kuwaitis who remained in the country to resist the occupation and those who spent the last seven months in the relative comfort of exile around the Arab world. Although those who stayed insist in public that they understand why some of their compatriots did not, in private they are more scathing, according to foreigners familiar with their mood.

``When Kuwaitis here used to hear what their government in Saudi Arabia was saying, they would laugh and say, `We are the ones who stayed. We are the ones with rights. We are the ones going to decide who our ministers will be,''' says a foreigner who asked not to be identified.

ONE of the biggest questions is whether the organized resistance itself might seek to play a political role, possibly challenging the ruling family.

Such a development seems unlikely soon. ``We took our orders from His Highness, the royal family are our leaders, and they were the ones who gave us money,'' a resistance leader says.

``The resistance maintained close relations with the sheikhs all the time, and some of its leaders were sheikhs themselves,'' argues a foreign political analyst. At the same time, he adds, the movement's ability to transform itself into a political force is limited by the fact that ``the members have no knowlege of each other except at the top levels. They were compartmentalized for security reasons.''

Speaking to reporters on March 4, one top resistance leader known as Abd al-Fahad said he saw his movement's role as encouraging moves toward democracy. But with political parties forbidden even under the 1962 Constitution that the royal family has promised to respect, opportunities for political organization are sharply restricted, political figures here say.

Members of the national assembly that was dissolved in 1986 agitated for four years to revive the parliament without success, and leaders of the protests such as Fadala were jailed or suffered such harrassment as tear gas attacks on their homes.

The parliament itself rarely enjoyed the full powers granted under the Constitution, said Fadala. Now, however, he says he is ``optimistic about our future here. People have become more mature, more open to the need to apply the Constitution.''

That Constitution, however, does not provide full democratic rights, and while pressures in favor of reform may build, they have yet to make themselves felt. Women do not have the vote, for example, nor do many Kuwaitis who do not enjoy the privileges of full nationality.

The nationality question is a complex one, dividing Kuwaitis into four different categories with different rights and status, and it is expected to provoke considerable debate in the coming months. Many of those without civil rights fought with the resistance and will likely demand that their contribution be recognized.

Most of the questions about Kuwait's political future remain unanswered. But for the time being, people appear ready to leave them that way, as the country finds its feet again.

``Most supporters of parliament agree with martial law,'' says Mr. Muttawa, ``but on one condition; that it should be finished quickly.''

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