Kuwait in Suspended Animation

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The emir has just put parliament and the constitution on the backburner, but for what purpose?

 

 

Kuwait has long been characterized by vigorous domestic political debate, with frequent parliamentary elections and fractious politics. For many years this fascinated me. I would joke that, on any given day, Kuwaiti newspapers could carry the headline “Political Deadlock Continues,” as parliamentarians squared off against one other, ministers were hauled in for formal interrogation before parliament, and momentous political issues were noisily debated. Ultimately, however, few decisions of note were made. I gradually lost interest in tracking day-to-day developments, as the joke had grown old and nothing seemed to change.

 

However, last week matters appeared to take a very different turn. Kuwait’s new ruling emir, Sheikh Mishaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, took a step that had been frequently discussed but that his predecessors had eschewed since 1986: he suspended parliament as well as critical parts of the constitution. Leaving no stone unturned, Sheikh Mishaal suspended the article that expressly forbade him to suspend the very articles he was suspending. But no Kuwaiti newspaper headlined the move “Political Deadlock Deepens,” and Sheikh Mishaal’s speech suggested that the suspension would not exceed four years.

 An emiri order accompanying the speech gave a more complex timetable, but not a clearer one. The order provided for the appointment of an expert committee to draw up proposed constitutional amendments within six months; the amendments are to be sent to the appointed cabinet before being forwarded to the emir. Within the next four years, the proposed changes would be submitted either to a public referendum or to parliament.

Both paths to ratification provoke doubts. Up-or-down referendums on constitutional amendments—especially those drawn up by an appointed committee, and in this case apparently operating under the emir’s watchful eye—have a deservedly negative reputation among international experts of constitutional processes, who focus more on who is allowed into the drafting room and how drafting takes place, than on whether narrow majorities can be persuaded to give a simple “yes” to all the suggested amendments. And with the just-elected parliament dissolved and the constitutional provisions for its operation suspended, it is not clear how a new parliament would be elected.

The order issued by Sheikh Mishaal coupled the timetable with ambiguous promises and the vaguest of principles. The amendments should improve the political system to support sound democratic governance and national unity, and do so in a way consistent with Islamic Sharia and “authentic” Kuwaiti and Arab traditions. Given this jumble of commitments and closed processes, it is not clear whether Kuwaiti democracy has been anesthetized, permanently circumscribed, or euthanized.

To be sure, it is important to recognize that, in recent years, long-term shifts have taken place in Kuwaiti politics, some of which might be seen as positive from a domestic perspective. For example, the deep divisions in regional and Kuwaiti politics—over pan-Arabism, Islamism, and sectarianism—are no longer as pronounced today. And over the past three decades, successive parliaments have found a strong voice—questioning ministers, forcing them from office, and securing a separation between the positions of crown prince and prime minister. With their criticism of senior members of the ruling family, and even the emir himself, individual parliamentarians pushed the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric. In some ways, Kuwait seemed to be following an evolutionary path toward parliamentary democracy.

Yet, ironically, many of these same tendencies created longstanding gridlock. Even as ideological battles eased, parliament seemed more fractured. The electoral system and political traditions seemed to reward grandstanding and patronage politics rather than coalition-building. Personalities rather than programs dominated the debate. Fractious ruling family politics seemed to play themselves out in the backing of rival politicians. The source of the paralysis was clear: veto power over key decisions was too liberally distributed. It became easy to contest or obstruct a decision, and far harder to make one, let alone see decisions through.

In his speech, Sheikh Mishaal cited some of these features. He gave each a spin that included thinly veiled references to specific incidents and individuals—those who had crossed rhetorical red lines, interfered in ruling family politics, exploited public positions, or pursued personal gain. Underlying the score-settling nature of the speech, the emir was voicing a basic frustration with the gridlock. And that might resonate with many followers of Kuwait who see its politics as not just lively but also broken, and even broken because they are too lively.

Sheikh Mishaal, then, presents himself as offering a way out: sounder and cleaner democracy to replace venality, division, and manipulation. His path forward—one that would likely qualify as an autogolpe—is potentially far-reaching, but not unprecedented. On two previous occasions, in 1976 and 1986, Sheikh Mishaal’s predecessors took similar steps. More remarkable is the fact that the wording of the 2024 emiri order is virtually identical to that of 1976. Even the language about Islamic Sharia, sound democratic governance, and authentic traditions remains unchanged.

If attempted for a short period, it would probably simply see the reemergence of old patterns once the constitution was restored. The constant threat of dissolution has hardly led to chastened parliamentarians, nor is there any reason to believe that acting on the threat would have more effect. The past two suspensions were hardly followed by docile parliaments. Nor would the suspension of parliament provide a more auspicious set of circumstances for fundamental constitutional reform than those existing at present—as mentioned above, the two previous suspensions led only to failed attempts to revise the constitution. A longer suspension would, of course, provide a longer respite from a pesky parliament, but it would also eventually lead to the same kind of exclusionary politics, [to the]melding of ruling family property with the public purse, and generally [to the]unaccountable and opaque political systems that exist [among]many of Kuwait’s neighbors. Paralysis might be remembered fondly in such circumstances.

On the previous two occasions, the ruling family ultimately responded to internal pressure and restored an unamended constitution (in the second case due in part to U.S. pressure). It is too early to say whether the same thing will happen again this time, but the idea that an appointed committee can impose changes that will earn acceptance does not seem promising. The members of the committee to review and revise the constitution have not been named. But if the two past suspensions are a guide, there is scant reason to have faith in the idea that abandoning Kuwait’s constitution is the best way to save it.

 

Carnegie Diwan

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ملخص

في موقف نقدي من تعليق الدستور في الكويت، يكتب الأستاذ الجامعي “ناثان جي براون أنه إذا استمرّ التعليق لفترة قصيرة، فمن المحتمل أن نشهد ببساطة عودة ظهور الأنماط القديمة بمجرد استعادة الدستور. إن التهديد المستمر بحل البرلمان لم يؤد إلى تعقّل البرلمانيين، ولا يوجد أي سبب للاعتقاد بأن تنفيذ التهديد بحلّ البرلمان وتعليق الدستور سيكون له تأثير أكبر.فلم تعقب برلماناتٌ سهلة الانقياد عمليتَي التعليق الأخيرتين. كما أن تعليقَ عملِ البرلمان لن يوفِّر مجموعةً من الظروف المناسبة للإصلاح الدستوري الأساسي أكثر من تلك الموجودة في الوقت الحاضر – وكما ذكرنا أعلاه، فإن التعليقين السابقين لم يؤديا إلا إلى محاولات فاشلة لمراجعة الدستور. من المؤكد أن التعليق لفترة أطول سيوفر فترة راحة أطول من البرلمان المزعج، لكنه سيؤدي أيضًا في النهاية إلى نفس النوع من السياسات الإقصائية، وإلى خلط ممتلكات الأسرة الحاكمة مع الخزانة العامة، وبشكل عام إلى  الأنظمة السياسية غير الخاضعة للمساءلة وغير الشفّافة الموجودة بين العديد من جيران الكويت.وفي مثل هذه الحالة، فقد نترحّم على حالة الشلل التي كانت سائدة قبل تعليق الدستور..

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