By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait's government has made clear it is willing and able to suppress unauthorized street protests, saying it must protect public safety, but risks provoking worse popular unrest by taking a hard line.
Police fired tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse thousands of Kuwaitis protesting over new voting rules late on Sunday. Last month a prominent opposition figure was arrested after speaking at a protest rally where he appealed to the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to avoid "autocratic rule".
OPEC member Kuwait allows more dissent than some of its fellow Gulf states. Opposition-led protests usually take place peacefully in a square outside parliament but in recent weeks they have spread to the streets beyond and resulted in clashes, with small groups of people being taken to hospital.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, governments have cracked down on protests with force. Bahrain turned to foreign troops, mainly from neighboring Saudi Arabia, to suppress protests last year. It banned all rallies and gatherings last week, saying this was to ensure public safety, but on Monday five bombs exploded in Manama, killing two people.
Analysts and diplomats say Kuwaiti authorities do not appear to want a full-scale crackdown. However, tensions are rising between the government and a group consisting of opposition lawmakers, youth groups and their supporters.
"We are no strangers to open and frank debate amongst our people," the Information Ministry said in an emailed statement to Reuters. "That said, the primary duty of any state is to maintain the safety and security of its citizens; as such, the police and other security forces will be used as necessary to maintain law and order exactly as they were last night."
It said 28 people were arrested on Sunday, adding that people were entitled to demonstrate in the square opposite parliament or elsewhere with a permit from a district governor.
Authorities have more readily enforced a ban on unlicensed protests and marches since a demonstration last month by tens of thousands ended in clashes between protesters and police. Parliamentary elections are scheduled on December 1.
"They are showing that there are red lines - protests outside designated areas and remarks that are seen as critical of the emir," a Kuwait-based diplomat said. "I don't think they want to take it any further than that."
While Kuwaitis have been protesting for months against voting rules, corruption and for democratic change, the harder line was taken after opposition figures made comments that might be seen as criticizing the emir.
The constitution says the emir is "immune and inviolable".
"The events of the past two weeks have crossed so many red lines and we now are seeing acts of mass civil disobedience as tens of thousands of people defy government warnings and the Family Council's call for obedience to the emir," said Kristian Ulrichsen, research fellow on Gulf States at the London School of Economics.
He was referring to the powerful family council comprising senior members of the 250-year-old Al-Sabah dynasty.
Each protest is a further challenge, so the authorities are trying to stop them from taking place, he said.
"But the experience from North Africa is that once hitherto-sacrosanct taboos are shattered, it is very difficult to reconstruct them," he said.
TRADITION OF PROTEST
Unlike demonstrators elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, Kuwaitis have not been calling for drastic changes in political leadership.
They have been protesting against local issues such as the voting rules and calling for reforms, such as allowing an elected government, more political accountability or for the creation of political parties, which are banned.
"The issue of licenses for protests is just a formality. They do not want this to get out of hand, they do not want protesters running about town," another Kuwait-based diplomat said, adding that stopping rallies with force could raise tensions. "They are also sensitive because of the tone of the demonstrations. This is all getting closer to the power which has been entrusted to the emir."
Some opposition politicians say the amendments to the election law, passed by a decree of the emir, are an attempt to give pro-government candidates an advantage in the polls.
The emir told state television last month that the changes were "aimed at improving the voting mechanism to preserve national unity and to strengthen the practice of democracy".
Under Kuwait's constitution, parliament confirms governments, passes laws presented by the cabinet and oversees the performance of various ministries. Lawmakers also have the right to summon ministers for questioning over policies.
The emir appoints prime ministers, can dissolve the legislature and has final say on state affairs.
"We are in a crisis. It is a political crisis. It is not clear how Kuwait is going to get out of it," said Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University.
"The executive is holding its position, the opposition and youth movement are also continuing their stance...The longer we wait for a political solution, the higher the price will be."
The protest is not just about the voting rules now, said Ahmad al-Deyain, a general coordinator for one of Kuwait's opposition groups. "The people want real democratic evolution, they want parliamentary authority. The authorities want to monopolize power," he said. "There are two different visions and there is no room for compromise."
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Hagagy; editing by David Stamp)