Over the last year of revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, Arabian Gulf countries - with the exception of Bahrain - have often seen their own protests go under-reported in both the Arab and the international press.
Of course, this is not entirely surprising: much of the region’s news media is owned by the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two countries deeply invested in playing down and preventing unrest in fellow monarchies. Moreover, reporting on political dissent in any of the neighborhood family fiefdoms can be a particularly dangerous undertaking given the heavy censorship and intimidation tools routinely wielded by the authorities.
Kuwait, however, has sometimes been the exception to this rule, as it was last week when hundreds of protesters, led by several elected officials, burst into the main chamber of parliament, leading to widespread coverage and a kind of national soul-searching among prominent commentators.
Although the Al Sabah family has ruled the country since 1752, in recent decades Kuwait's elected parliament - propelled by a vigorous Islamic opposition as well as sectarian and tribal-based factions - has been one of the most vibrant in the region. Protesters on Nov 17 were demanding the immediate resignation of prime minister Sheikh Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammed Al-Sabah, who has been the focal point of corruption allegations.
“Unfortunately, the equation of democracy in Kuwait, which had been the object of pride and satisfaction, has lost its luster and infallibility over the recent year,” wrote columnist Abdullah Omran in the Kuwaiti daily Al Khaleej.
Taking up a theme common across several publications in the country, Omran lamented the “lost compass of awareness” that has supposedly soiled a unique democratic experience: “The relationship between the government and the people’s council has gone into a phase of paralysis, with a violent and frustrated mood, and no prudence, no wisdom, and no rationality.”
He concluded wistfully that, although “We still have faith in this pioneering and special democratic constitutional experience and in the need to spread democracy in the Arabian Gulf, we are sad and reproachful.”
Kuwait’s newspaper Al Qabas editorialised that the violent actions of the protesters - several security guards were injured in a melee at parliament’s door – represented “a childish act of anarchy regardless of the motives and the reasons,” but then went on to offer a harsh criticism of Nasser’s government, which, it said, had sowed the conditions for an explosion.
“Tensions are accumulating and anger is mounting as a reaction to the behavior of the impotent government that is moving aimlessly, while lacking any vision and showing shortsightedness. It allowed the rope of corruption, bribery and nepotism to extend itself without moving a muscle or revealing any wish to introduce reforms or lead the situation back on the right track under the rule of the law.”
Referring to specific allegations of widespread financial corruption within the government and among affiliated MPs, the daily charged that these sides had “drowned in the soiled millions which they did not generate through hard work, but rather by selling their consciences in exchange for a vote or a position.” This, Al Qabas said, amounted to an “occupation” of sorts which enveloped all Kuwaitis, “threatening their country and their future.”
But then, regrettably, “Black Wednesday came,” the paper intoned. Instead of offering a solution, the protesters unwittingly “offered the government a cover and provided it with an acquisition it would have never hoped to see had the opposition maintained its respect for the constitution and for wisdom.”
“This irrational path will definitely fail,” it said.
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Writing in the daily Al Jaridah, a paper staunchly supportive of the Al Sabah monarchy, Ali Al Badah focused the brunt of his column, unsurprisingly, on the actions of the MPs who supported the protest.
“Had one of my closet friends told me about what was carried out on Wednesday by some deputies from the National Assembly and a group of citizens, I would have said he was exaggerating and I would have accused him of insulting the Assembly’s deputies and the people. How can I believe that our honourable deputies would rush, along with enthusiastic youths, to break down the National Assembly’s door, tamper with it and offend it?”
This time around, Badah said, echoing a warning recently issued by the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, the deputies must be held accountable for what they did “so that the country is not subjected to this threat ever again.”
But even as a columnist supportive of the monarchy and clearly shocked at the recent unrest, Badah managed to portray the government as vulnerable to accusations of corruption and ineffective -– underlining exactly how little public support the premier and his men have left.
“The violations of the government, the issue of the accounts of the deputies accused of possessing money as a result of bribery or money-laundering and the deterioration affecting the government’s performance,” are all serious problems that “should be discussed in order to hold the government accountable,” Badah concluded.
In fact, “We would have applauded the deputies,” he noted, had they pulled out from the assembly and imposed new elections “to allow the people to get rid of the parliamentarians who are taking bribes.”
For democracy advocates watching in nearby countries such as Saudi Arabia, the images of violent clashes inside the Kuwaiti parliament undoubtedly raised concern.
Writing only a few days before the events, columnist Fadel Ahmad Al Omani had already sadly concluded in the Saudi-based Al Watan daily that Kuwait’s system was on its way to a total breakdown.
“It seems that more than 60 years were not enough for this beautiful country to enhance the principles and values of true democracy, which constitute the basis for human rights and freedoms, the acceptance of the other’s opinion, true citizenship and national unity.”
Obliquely referring to his own hopes for Saudi Arabia, he bemoaned that the failure of the “Kuwaiti democratic model will definitely cost it a lot of its glow, inspiration and motivation, thereby rendering it inapplicable and un-exportable to its Gulf and Arab surrounding.”
But with regimes from Algeria and Egypt to Yemen, Bahrain and Syria digging in deeper, and violence on the rise, one fist fight and street protest in Kuwait may be the least problem right now for the image and hope of greater openness and accountability in the region.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are correspondents for the Bloomberg World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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