Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kuwait and The Arab Spring: Perspective

Following is an interview that appeared in the Arab Times a few days ago, titled, "Street movement seeks reform Kuwait democratic experiment lagging behind in region".  Thanks, Hamad Al-Sabah, for pointing it out on Twitter.

THE Arab Spring has overshadowed the democratic credentials of countries like Kuwait and Lebanon. Now, we are lagging behind as the culture of freedom sweeps across the Arab landmass with people wresting power from the hands of discredited regimes. Dr Shafeeq Ghabra, political analyst, in this interview to the Arab Times, connects the dots to allow the true picture of the political conflicts in Kuwait to emerge. The nod is certainly towards constitutional monarchy or some system where the Parliament will be in the driving seat, he notes. And for that ultimate transition the streets of Kuwait, more than any institution, will have a major role to play.

Question: Do you think what’s happening in Kuwait has a connection with the revolutions in the region?Answer: Yes, there is a definite connection between what’s happening in Kuwait and what’s happening in the region. However, what has happened in the region has far surpassed the Kuwaiti experiment, and if you want even the Lebanese experiment. Now, we are lagging behind other countries in the region in terms of the democratic experiment.
This is on the one hand, but on the other, changes and movements in Kuwait are not seeking to overthrow the political system. They are peaceful. We are only seeking political reforms. Whereas the other countries in the region, especially the republics, sought to overthrow their regimes.

Q: So from that perspective, can we say that Kuwait’s protests are different from the Arab Spring?A: Arab Spring has two components. In monarchies it’s only a reform agenda. It could lead to constitutional monarchies ultimately – look at Morocco and Jordan, while in the republics it’s touching a much deeper level, affecting even the highest echelons of power. It’s a deeper change. Therefore, it’s revolutions in the republics, and reforms in the monarchies. So, monarchies that fail to reform could face revolutions.

Q: Therefore you are suggesting that there is a very serious lesson for Kuwait to learn from these changes. Is Kuwait on the path to reforms or is it on the path to revolution?A: The recent initiative of HH the Amir of respecting the popular demand is a positive sign. There is a level of flexibility at the highest rungs of power. This flexibility is needed to be able to go forward.

Q: You said that Kuwait is lagging behind in its democratic experiments when compared to the changes in the region. Isn’t that too premature a judgement because, yes, while some regimes have been overthrown, we are yet to see what exactly is going to materialize in these countries? Egypt has gone into elections, but we can see that there’s still a standoff between the people and the army. Your remarks.A: What I meant was that in the past Kuwait and Lebanon were models that the region looked up to, we were the most democratic systems in the region. Now that image has been dimmed. The countries where changes are taking place are already aiming at a system that’s much more democratic than ours. The Arab Spring has raised the ceiling very high. The freedom, the criticisms, the levels of organization, the level of involvement by various factions in the society, the call for change, the ability to challenge authority has been taken to a totally different qualitative level in the Arab region. With these changes, we, that’s Kuwait and Lebanon, can no longer say that we are the most democratic countries in the region. That’s true of Iraq also. Even the Iraqi model, which replaced a dictatorial regime, can’t claim to be a leading example of democracy in the region any more.

Q: Kuwait’s democratic culture has always been rated very highly, it was next only to Israel in the whole region. We know that our media is very unsparing of the politicians, including the Prime Minister. So, don’t you think a more correct take would be to say that the region is catching up with our standard of democracy rather than ours going down?A: I am not saying that our freedom in Kuwait has gone down, neither has it gone up. We are in the middle of a change environment. What we have today is a bolder generation. A much more critical mass. It is willing to speak out and there is no limit to what they want to speak about. The bar certainly has gone up over the last two years, generally speaking of the region. Even in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or anywhere in the region. The people are willing to take initiatives. Everywhere the issue of challenging authority is getting stronger, the issue of fighting corruption is getting stronger, the issue of enfranchisement of the people is getting stronger.

Q: What do you think was actually happening in the region when very strong regimes one fine day suddenly collapsed one after another like a house of cards? What is your reading, is there something more to these events, are these events just a small part of a larger script that we are failing to see?A: A tree could look okay in the middle of a desert. It could look great and strong, standing tall for hundreds of years. But when a disease hits its roots and spreads inside, it could get hollowed out, yet keeping its appearance. All of these regimes were hollow inside.

Q: Coming back to Kuwait, what is the real yearning here? Is it only a political wrangling over the change of the Prime Minister and a reshuffle of the Cabinet or is there a thirst for a deeper structural change?A: Kuwait has been frozen for a long time. No initiatives by the government, weak development, weak educational system and so on have tested the patience of the people to its limit. The stalemate between the government and the Parliament kept prolonging, while everything else was slowly deteriorating. There are no formally recognized political parties in Kuwait, the Parliament couldn’t form governments. The conflict between the Parliament and the government made it look as if we were governed by two equal and opposite authorities, constantly locking their horns. One has to give in to the other for there to be any progress.

The youth of the country were now forced to take the initiative to break this impasse between the authorities. So, the demand for change permeates every level of politics, at the level of the Parliament, the government and the structure itself. However, the people are looking at radical changes, we only want reforms to get the system back on track and running. It was in this context the slogan for changing the Prime Minister began. They wanted the Parliament to be dissolved. They also wanted a fresh start, fresh elections. Next, the issue of corruption surfaced strongly, because it was eating into everything: politics, economy, you name it. Corruption is big time. MPs were accused of malfeasance, accepting money from undefined sources.

So these youth movements are playing a role to facilitate a third path between the government and the Parliament to get things moving. They are strengthening the parliamentarians who want change, and individuals in the opposition who want to do something constructive for the nation. So, what we are seeing is a part of the larger change. The result of all these changes could be a constitutional monarchy. May be in the next 10 years, we could be a constitutional monarchy.

However, it doesn’t mean the way to that end could be easy. There could be many impediments and setbacks. But we are definitely moving towards a system where the Parliament will become the driving seat of the government. So, what we are seeing today is just one angle of this overall struggle. At the same time the civil societies are also getting stronger in Kuwait, which will catalyse this change.
What I am saying is that the society itself is gearing towards that change. For example, a majority of Kuwaitis are from tribes that come from the desert regions. This majority is not duly represented in the Parliament though. I am talking about Kuwaitis who come from Jahra, Fahaheel and all these tribal belts. They are not appropriately represented.

Because they are a big mass of people, and because they are not well represented, they have to resort to backdoor connections to get their rights. For these people, Parliament is the only mechanism that can empower them. This is the reason why Kuwait can’t dissolve the Parliament. To dissolve the Parliament unconstitutionally is tantamount to saying that this majority has no say at all anymore. That will never happen. That’s also one reason tribal affiliations are very strong here. They don’t have the workaround or the money that the elite of the country enjoy. They fall back on the tribe to get what they want.

So, these tribes want to be truly enfranchised, similar to the labour enfranchisement movements of the mid 19th century in Europe. It was only the property owners who could vote back then, and the lower classes wanted to be enfranchised as well. To absorb all these aspirations of the masses of tribes, we need political parties, political agendas and so forth. We need better educational systems, better healthcare services and so on. We can’t be telling them even today that they are newcomers to Kuwait.

You can’t keep them out any longer on the grounds that their tribes are newcomers to Kuwait or that they have dual nationalities – some still carry a Saudi nationality. You can’t discriminate anymore on the basis that their tribes did not fight the Jahra battle. Instead let’s appreciate the fact that they fought against Iraqi invasion, which was a much bigger war than the Jahra Battle, and which impinged on the sovereignty and existence of Kuwait to a much greater extent than the Jahra Battle.
You need to have a new approach that can unite the whole of Kuwait – Sunnis and Shias, urbanites and tribes to create a modern and progressive Kuwait.

Q: You referred to a systemic change towards a constitutional monarchy in the next ten years. Is a change of that magnitude possible in such a short period of time? Do you expect the youth movements to take their struggle to a higher level of resistance, more violent perhaps, to push for these changes?A: Yes, 10 years may be too short a time for big changes, but if you analyse what happened with the Arab Spring you will know that you don’t need a lot of time for big changes to occur. So what could be accomplished in 10 years could be accomplished in one year also. We never know.
Every leader, every president or every head of state in the region is racing against time. They know that change is imminent, and are doing everything possible to contain the damage as much as possible. There are mass movements every where, and there are government initiatives for change. It depends on which of the two will overwhelm the other. If mass movements get stronger, the governments will change. If the government initiatives for change get the better of protests, then the mass movements will be absorbed into the system of change.

Sometimes, it’s only a matter of weeks for this equation to play out its full course. In the case of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, you would notice that the drastic changes in policy happened over weeks. One week he said there is no question of stepping down, and the following week he was announcing the date of his renunciation of power.
So, this is a historical period in the region. It is bringing out forces in the society that had been dormant for years. It’s a movement of awakening. The best approach is to be a visionary, to think ahead.
Some of the leaders have lost the moment, like President Bashar Assad. He has lost the moment. He has procrastinated for a long time. He took all the wrong decisions since the beginning of the revolution in his country. He is out. It’s only a matter of time. 2012 will see his end. But there are regimes in the region that are still loved by its people, by more than 50 percent of the people, which is a good support base.

Q: My question is about the move towards that bigger change in Kuwait. So far, the change of the Prime Minister, dissolution of the Parliament and fresh elections... all these were within the framework of the Constitution. But for the deeper structural changes, such as a move towards constitutional monarchy we need to go extra constitutional. How smooth do you think that change would be, and how would the leadership react to such a demand?A: What we have now is elections. This will bring more reforms as the majority in the Parliament after the elections would be the opposition. This does not mean that we will automatically have solutions once the Parliament is formed. We will have to see how the government will perform. To what extent will it be able to move forward. A lot will depend on what the government is able to do after the election. At the same time, you have a structural problem. One of it is that even if you have a majority in the Parliament of one political group, we still have 15 ministers, who are members of the Parliament. This means they have a vote on every issue raised in the Parliament and they will invariably vote in favour of the government. We want to hear more demands to change this status quo. So the majority in the Parliament is not out of 50, but 50 plus 15, which is 65.
This is where the lack of a political party system will be most felt. So, we will see a lot of demand coming for the legitimization of political parties.

Q: For these demands to be passed constitutionally, you will need that magic number in the Parliament, which as you just pointed out would be very difficult. So, then how will the protest movements get around this stumbling block to get their demands? How do you think the leadership will receive these demands for change?A: They may be rejected. But now what you have is there are people who have gotten used to going to the streets. Therefore, I think that the youths in the streets will be a characteristic of Kuwait in the coming years. The street movements will become very common. This will bear a great influence on the way that everyone thinks, including the leadership. The leadership will be keenly listening to pulse of these youth movements.

The way I see it is that these youth movements will see how their demands are not being met politically, leading to their scepticism of the Parliament. So, they will lose faith in their own representatives in the Parliament. When Parliament in their eyes becomes less legitimate, then the street becomes more legitimate. The only way you can make the street less legitimate is by empowering the democratic institutions in the country. That’s what happened in the West. They gave their Congresses and the Parliaments real power. And that’s why most of the protest movements withered away. People’s faith in the democratic institutions was restored and so they ignored street protests.

So, in the near future, I see the streets in Kuwait getting much stronger. The youths of the country will court arrests willingly, and imprisonment of street protestors will become a common narrative in the country’s politics. This will also lay the foundation for the next generation of leaders. They will be the MPs, ministers and prime ministers of the future.

Q: Is there a consensus among these disparate youth movements on what exactly they want?A: Not exactly. Sometimes, these movements build bridges, and get on with a gut feeling. They build on experience. They tend to take initiatives. Every initiative is by a different movement, and there are new groups emerging. If you look at the recent protests in front of the Ministry of Justice asking for the release of the arrested protestors, they were led by women activists. They were independent and did not belong to any group. So, youths are learning and evolving. We are entering this era of mass protests. However, what is good about Kuwait is that we have an Amir who sees these developments, is empathetic to the real needs of the people, and is able to act in a timely manner to diffuse tension. The leadership has to deal with this situation gently with an eye on the long-term consequences.

Full Story in the Arab Times HERE.  Includes Dr. Ghabra's bio.


Anonymous said...

if they strip real power from the emir and give it to policians in the parliment, i'm leaving!
The problem is (edited)
be careful what you ask for - parliments in the past have segerated education and debated about the halalness of imported chicken while development projects gather dust.
careful what you ask for (case in point, egyp and iran)

Desert Girl said...

I hope youse understand that I have to be VERY careful what I post in reference to this article. Sorry if some of your comments won't appear.