What started as a dispute over voting rules in Kuwait has mushroomed into a debate about the balance of power between the emir and parliament, with implications for other Gulf dynasties facing reform pressure since the Arab Spring. Thousands of Kuwaitis have regularly taken to the streets since late October to protest at Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah’s decision to amend the electoral law before a parliamentary election on December 1. While public demonstrations about local issues are common in a state that allows the most dissent in the Gulf, Kuwait – a major oil producer and U.S. ally in a precarious region facing U.S. arch-foe Iran – has avoided Arab Spring-style mass unrest that toppled three veteran Arab dictators last year.
But in a conscious echo of slogans used in other parts of the Arab world, some demonstrators at an opposition-led rally on November 11 chanted “The people want to bring down the decree!” and a slogan addressed to the emir: “We won’t allow you!”
The 83-year-old emir, described as “immune and inviolable” in the constitution, has said his emergency decree to reduce the number of votes per citizen to one from four will streamline the electoral system and help preserve national unity.
Opposition groups say the changes will skew the vote in favor of candidates close to the government, which is run by a prime minister appointed by Sheikh Sabah and whose top posts are filled by members of the ruling family.
“We are seeing the emergence of a very vibrant, assertive and dynamic civil society that is seeking a transformation in the power relations and structure of the state,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University.
“It is going as far as (demanding) a constitutional, parliamentary monarchy. It is not a revolutionary movement, it is a grassroots civil reform movement.”