Since its liberation from Iraqi occupation, Kuwait has been walking a tightrope between a democratic vision, supported by liberal Kuwaitis and backed by the United States, and a conservative vision, supported by traditionalists in Kuwait and backed by the weight of neighboring Gulf states.
The Oct. 7 elections brought to parliament 50 members who reflect almost all the ideological and social bases of Kuwait. Kuwait's Islamist opposition won 20 seats (40 percent); independent candidates won 13 seats (26 percent); and progovernment forces won 17 seats (34 percent). Moreover, many members of parliament have multiple loyalties, tribal and sectarian. For example, 24 members come from Kuwait's major tribes, the Mutair, the Awazim, and the Ajman. The parliament represents both Shia and Sunni.
In spite of the limitations of the Kuwaiti democratic experiment, the elections showed a fairness unprecedented in the region. The lack of government interference in the political process will certainly have implications for neighboring countries. This is both a promise and a peril. For the people of the Gulf, Kuwait is a promise of further democratization in the region. Surrounding governments, on the other hand, see Kuwait's democracy as a threat to their internal stability. It could inspire further demands for power-sharing in the Gulf region, and few regional governments will agree to such demands without outside pressure.
This is why Kuwait has to move cautiously toward a more liberal and democratic society without openly challenging the legitimacy of its neighboring rulers. This cautious stance is complicated by Kuwait's vulnerability to threats from Iran and Iraq. "Iraq is an immediate threat, while Iran is a future threat," one Kuwaiti put it.
In spite of the fairness of elections and the increase in the number of eligible voters, Kuwait still could enfranchise more of its citizens, namely women. Yet Kuwaiti women have more freedom than women in other Gulf countries. Although they did not vote in the election, a great number of Kuwaiti women of all ages protested their exclusion. Young women in jeans and backward baseball caps held signs calling for greater political inclusion. Their dress alone would have been enough to get them arrested in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Kuwaiti women also have the backing of powerful women from the ruling family, such as Drs. Rasha and Souad al-Sabah, both outspoken supporters of women's rights.
Prospects for greater enfranchisement are attainable since the Kuwaiti Constitution doesn't prevent women from voting; an electoral law established by parliament does. Parliament, therefore, has the power to change the law. A comment by a senior government official was promising: "It is in their hands to change this if women lobby their representatives. We have no objection to women's voting. Women played an important role in the liberation of Kuwait and we appreciate that."
Equally promising, the ruling family chose to stay above the fray in these elections. It obviously disapproved of some candidates, such as Hussein al-Qalaf, a pro-Iranian Shia cleric - and yet al-Qalaf won a seat in parliament.
Kuwaiti reformers still need the support of Western democracies. As one of them explained, "Kuwait is a small state and cannot give women the right to vote or democratize fully without risking offending our powerful neighbors."
Kuwait needs security guarantees from the West to move toward greater democratization. "Democracy for us is a strategic choice," a senior government official told me. He added, "We need to have good relations with the world's democracies. They are the ones that protected us from our neighbor. Democracy is part and parcel of our security package." This is certainly new thinking in the vulnerable, small Gulf state.
A DEMOCRATIC Kuwait could offer a laboratory for pluralism. In Kuwait, expatriate workers from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and many European countries currently enjoy greater protection from exploitation than in Saudi Arabia. A democratic Kuwait would allow all these different nationalities to be part of a cosmopolitan society by further protecting their rights as well as those of Kuwaiti citizens.
Being pulled into two opposing directions by Saudi Arabia and the US, Kuwait will encounter some difficulty in trying to satisfy both. For Kuwait to continue as democratic and to have the courage to include more people in the process, it needs more security guarantees. The US should stand firmly behind this process. Democracy will ultimately provide lasting security, not only to Kuwait but to the whole Gulf region.
*Mamoun Fandy is research professor of politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.