The Political Profile of Postwar Kuwait

THE liberation of Kuwait has barely begun. The emir cannot rule the new Kuwait as he did the old; the opposition wants change and is prepared to demand it. The emir can allow such opposition, as well as an elected assembly - or he can impose an authoritarian solution. Though he leans to the latter, he would be wise to consider the former. The present crisis solidified Kuwaiti opposition as never before. In the past, Kuwait's oil wealth enabled the emir to buy off dissent. Kuwait did have an elected National Assembly, and was one of the more politically open states in the region. It had a relatively free press and a real Assembly elected by a small (adult male citizens) but not trivial electorate.

Those who dominated the assembly were not the historical elite but ordinary Kuwaitis who benefited from the state's generous welfare system. The historic opposition, the merchants on whom the emir relied for money in the lean pre-oil years, held back from politics, devoting themselves instead to investing the money the emir sent their way.

In the year before the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait's political dynamic began to change. In 1988 the emir suspended the Assembly. In 1989 members of this dissolved Assembly began organizing the Constitutional Movement, calling for reinstitution of the Assembly and the suspended 1962 constitution. They were joined by the merchants, alienated by the ruler's inability to adhere to the political buyout agreement due to the 1986 fall in oil prices. The merchants' extraordinary return to politics unified the opposi tion and prompted the emir to hold June 1990 elections for a compromise part-elected, part-appointed National Council.

The invasion prompted the opposition to regroup in exile and petition the emir for greater democracy in restored Kuwait. The showdown came in October when the ruler met with 1,200 opposition leaders and publicly promised liberalization following liberation. The elite opposition, however, had finally unified just as it was losing its popular base to the resistance groups inside Kuwait. The Kuwaitis who had spent months fighting the occupation had little need for those who had spent the war in relatively comfortable exile. To them, the exile opposition leaders had become figures as distant as the emir. These divisions surfaced after the war as food rotted in warehouses while resistance leaders argued with old officials over the right to feed people. The opposition, so briefly united, redivided.

This was the moment for the emir to break off negotiations over gold bathroom fixtures and return to Kuwait with the armies of liberation, kiss the ground, make new promises, then stand above factions and appeal to the natural desire of a population tired of war. The prodemocracy movement might have been scuttled and a benign authoritarianism reimposed.

Instead, he clutched. Whether for personal reasons, from exaggerated concern for al-Sabah interests, or from the ineptitude of ruling classes that is as common as it is inexplicable, the emir hesitated. Thus he legitimized the opposition. He unwittingly forged a united prodemocratic front that could now challenge him.

Challengers are:

* The merchants. Historically, the most important opposition group. After the discovery of oil, the merchants went into political hibernation but are active again. They form the liberal constitutionalist opposition along with "the technocrats."

* The technocrats. Often children of merchants, they established a political beachhead in the bureaucracy before the invasion and reestablished one in the reconstruction administration. They support prodemocracy but are in an adminstrative turf battle with "the resistance."

* The resistance. These include both organizers of the underground food distribution networks and the more militant Islamist opposition that emerged in the mosques under occupation. Kuwaitis who survived the occupation remain loyal to the resistance. Their sense of entitlement from suffering at the hands of the Iraqis is powerful but amorphous. Surprisingly diverse in their religious, economic, political, and legal status, their political allegiances are fragile. Minor actors in the coming confronta tion include:

* The national population outside of Kuwait. Divided between those anxious to return and those prepared to wait, those reliant on state stipends and those with their own money, they cannot present a unified position.

* The nonnational population inside Kuwait. Ethnically, linguistically, economically, and politically diverse, nonnationals have never formed a political bloc. Most wanted merely to save money and return home quickly. Now divided between those who opposed Iraq and those who did not, they pose no unified threat. Their energy will be dissipated by individual efforts to cut a deal and stay.

Against this array of forces stands the emir, backed only by his family, the al-Sabahs, historically a weak group which only gained importance after the growth of a state bureaucracy forced the ruler to turn trusted relatives into loyal staff. Today the family holds most key cabinet posts.

The emir's best chance for survival may lie in negotiation with the opposition he helped unify. He needs to form a unity cabinet with merchants, technocrats, Islamist resistance leaders, and al-Sabahs, and set an election date. By institutionalizing the opposition he can coopt it and implicate its leaders in the difficult austerity measures Kuwait must adopt. If he attempts to crush the opposition, the new government will see more al-Sabahs, interior and defense ministers with multiple portfolios, expan sion of the internal security apparatus, and the increasing redefinition of politcal problems (population policy, privatization) as technical problems for planners, not parliamentarians.

This is the most dangerous trend. The efficacy of the democratic impulse lies less in the strength of Kuwait's participatory institutions than in the weakness of its authoritarian institutions. If these are allowed to grow unchecked, the prodemocratic forces will never win. Now unchecked by either bureaucratic or representative bodies, the security apparatus, historically weak in Kuwait, will do anything - hold food at the borders, bury oil firefighters in paperwork - to stay in power. This is particula rly a danger in Kuwait today as the security apparatus now stands.

This is a problem for Kuwaitis to solve. The United States, however, can help by reiterating its support for the prodemocratic forces and by communicating this to the emir as he wavers between liberalization and authoritarianism.

We should see Kuwait as an opportunity, a chance to break with the past and support a genuine prodemocratic movement in our newly liberated ally. Those who supported the war must be equally supportive of the peace. Those who opposed it must resist the temptation to gloat over emerging antidemocratic tendencies and instead help halt them.

Democracy may not have been the reason we supported Kuwait in the past, but it should be the reason we support its continuing liberation in the future. And the emir needs to know this.

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