Since the revolution broke out in Tunisia that launched the Arab Spring, many of us have been watching closely the events breaking out across North Africa and the Middle East to see where this trend will lead. We in the West are hoping for a broad democratic movement to take root, though we're not always sure what that would look like. One of the central issues for the observer from the outside is the role of Islamist groups. What role will they take and how will that influence relationships with the West and with Israel? Mona Kareem wrote a reflection yesterday for Sightings on the developments in Kuwait, a chief US ally, that helps us understand the variety of issues that face a very complex region.
-- Mona Kareem
As a country that has an elected parliament but not an elected prime minister, Kuwait is a paradox. In the course of the Arab spring, Kuwait has witnessed sit-ins, rallies, and protests against Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah. Politicians have been divided over this issue, but many support his ouster, including Islamists, liberals, and conservatives.
This ongoing movement in Kuwait might be aiming for reforms but it also reflects a clash within the ruling family. In order to win the battle, members of the ruling family chose to form alliances with parliament members. As a result, Salafis now support and serve the interests of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad while the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood focuses on expanding its base by being part of the opposition.
Unlike similar groups in the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis in Kuwait do not have a clear agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood does not aim to make an Islamic state out of Kuwait. Kuwait's Muslim Brotherhood faced a turning point during the Iraqi invasion when other Muslim Brotherhoods supported the invasion, at which point the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood announced their new name: The Islamic Constitutional Movement. They speak of their support for Hamas and Saudi Arabia but they stand against Hizbollah and Iran, although Hamas is in agreement with both, while Saudi Arabia supports Fatah against Hamas!
Salafis in Kuwait are an anti-Shia movement that focuses on the danger of Iran in the Gulf region, especially after the protests in Bahrain. They took the side of the government up until the current Prime Minister was appointed. Both groups use the names “Muslim Brotherhoold” and “Salafis” to gain a majority in the parliament.
Islamists demand that Sharia be the only source for all laws in Kuwait. Sharia is one of the sources of public laws; however, it is not the only one. Acts like adultery and drinking alcohol are forbidden in Kuwait based on Islamic Sharia yet those who commit them are not punished according to the Sharia but based on civil laws like imprisonment, fines, and legal pledges not to repeat the incriminating action. The article in the Kuwaiti constitution relating to public law and the role of Sharia in it has been debated for decades, with liberals opposing the Islamist view.
Whether they gain or lose power, this does not shape Kuwaiti foreign policy. Because of its strong alliance with the United States, Kuwait's foreign policy is not influenced by the Kuwaiti parliament even if the majority campaigned in favor of Saudi Arabia against Iran, for instance. Instead, decisions relating to foreign policy are made by the Amir.
When compared with conservatives in the parliament, Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood both use their tribal backgrounds to get more votes. However, conservatives are less concerned about social issues like censorship, limiting women’s freedoms, and fighting homosexuality. Conservatives are more concerned with serving the interests of their voters who, for the most part, share the same tribal background.
Two years ago, Kuwaiti Islamists (both Salafi groups and Muslim Brotherhood) lost half of their seats in the parliamentary elections. From 21 seats, they now have 11 out of 50 seats that represent Kuwait's five electoral districts. On the other hand, four women, for the first time in history, were elected. In addition Shia representatives went from having five seats to nine.
The Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood has historically been on the side of the government, but in the past two years they chose to take the side of the opposition since they are small in number and lack the power to effect parliamentary decisions. In the previous parliament, Islamists tried to create a group with a larger number, to have an effective role in the parliament; however, this experience failed and forced them into going back to their small groups as Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2006, the Muslim Brotherhood's leader Abdullah Al-Ali passed away; leaving the movement weaker, since he had invested a fortune into empowering the Muslim brotherhood base, both in society and the political sphere. Former Muslim Brotherhood parliament members who preferred to follow their group rather than their tribes, have lost their bid and were not able to get reelected.
This experience forced the new Muslim Brotherhood parliament members into playing the tribal card and choosing the side of opposition against the current Prime Minister who has been known of his liberal mentality. Previously, Islamists in Kuwait have preferred to take the side of the government because they were in agreement with the former rulers of Kuwait who had supported Islamists since the 70's against leftists. The leftists were the most powerful up to the Iraqi invasion.
Salafis, on the other hand, have faced many difficulties in the past elections which caused them to lose their seats. Current Salafi parliament members chose to be part of the opposition against the Prime Minister, most importantly because of their known alliance with Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad, who is another member of the Al-Sabah ruling family opposing his cousin, the Prime Minister.
It is obvious that Kuwaiti Islamists have been badly affected by their loss in 2009. We are witnessing an opposition Islamic movement based on strong alliances and the public thirst for charismatic Islamic opposition figures. All those factors put together can explain the current tactics that the Islamists are using in the parliament to demand the removal of the Prime Minister.
Mona Kareem is a Kuwaiti journalist, poet, and blogger. She has published two poetry collections and keeps a blog at monakareem.blogspot.com.