Kuwait violence hampers Gulf's shift to democracy

'Black Wednesday' protests will be seen as warning signals to neighbours Saudi, Qatar

Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah

Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah

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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