Kuwait awaits protests but no stranger to upheaval

AP News
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Posted: Mar 06, 2011 11:45 AM
Kuwait awaits protests but no stranger to upheaval

The next scheduled stop on the Arab protest tour: Kuwait. This, however, is more of a return engagement.

Calls for anti-government rallies Tuesday are an extension of nasty political skirmishes in Kuwait that were under way long before the first glint of dissent that began in Tunisia more than two months ago.

Kuwait has the Gulf's most powerful and combative parliament, and opposition lawmakers have already taken bold shots at the ruling emir's inner circle, including twice staging no-confidence motions since December 2009 that nearly brought down the prime minister. The plan now is to take the demands for a political overhaul to the streets in the style of Egypt and nearby Bahrain.

But while the tactics may be similar, it also shows that each of the Middle East's protest movements carries its own spirit.

"There's a distinct personality to each place and each protest," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "That's the challenge for policy makers trying to make sense of it all."

Libya and Yemen are all-or-nothing fights to bring down the leadership. Oman has generally cooled after an angry start _ with protesters staging sit-in rallies to push for more jobs and state handouts, while being careful not to speak ill of the lute-playing sultan who has ruled for 40 years. Bahrain's protests tap into deep-rooted claims of discrimination by the majority Shiites against the Sunni monarchy.

The rumblings in Saudi Arabia _ where protesters have called for a show of force Friday _ seek even small breaks in the absolute control in the ruling House of Saud.

Kuwait would join the Arab protest roster with quite a bit of experience and could become another Arab hot spot.

Kuwait's opposition bloc in parliament _ a mix of Islamists and anti-corruption reformists _ has gone toe-to-toe for years with the hand-picked government of the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, over allegations that include financial mismanagement and attempts to roll back political freedoms. The dissident lawmakers draw heavily from the desert provinces outside Kuwait City, where many feel overlooked by the ruling dynasty and cut out of the country's oil wealth.

The most significant change this week could be adding pro-reform youth groups into the fray. At a protest strategy meeting last week, some organizers of new youth-oriented factions _ including one called Kafi, or Enough, in Arabic _ pledged to occupy a main square in Kuwait City to copy the round-the-clock stand by demonstrators in Bahrain's Pearl Square.

The top target for Kuwait's protesters is the prime minister, Sheik Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah, who has been accused of trying to limit political freedoms and muzzle dissenting voices.

Sheik Nasser _ a nephew of the emir _ narrowly survived a parliament vote in January that would have forced him to resign. Weeks earlier, he was grilled in a rare parliamentary questioning session called after security forces clashed with opposition deputies and their supporters at a December rally. The prime minister, who took office in 2006, also survived a no-confidence vote in December 2009 after allegations that public funds were misused.

The opposition is also demanding fast-track parliament elections, claiming some pro-government lawmakers won seats in 2009 through vote rigging.

There are no major calls to try to wipe out the ruling dynasty, which has held power for more than 250 years. But Bahrain's uprising also began with no direct denunciations of the king, and the anti-royal sentiment grew as the crackdowns turned deadly, including gunfire on marchers.

In Kuwait last week, security forces fired tear gas to disperse protests by the descendants of desert nomads, known as bidoon, demanding citizenship and the generous state benefits that go with it, such as free health care and public service jobs.

"The opposition wants a government that is responsive to parliament, but you have a political system that is essentially responsive to the ruling family and, to a great extent, often comprising the ruling family," said F. Gregory Gause III, an expert on Gulf affairs at the University of Vermont. "How do you reach a compromise between these two principles? Something has got to give."

Kuwait's leader has already cut loose one top government minister last month. It was enough for opposition groups to postpone protest rallies until this week.

Sheik Jaber Al-Khaled Al Sabah stepped down as interior minister after a suspect arrested for illegal liquor sales was allegedly tortured to death while in police custody. Sheik Jaber was replaced by another close relative of the emir.

In January, Kuwait's emir also granted 1,000 dinars ($3,559) and free food coupons for each of the 1 million citizens. The gifts were linked to three anniversaries early this year: 50 years of independence, the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that drove out Iraqi troops and the fifth year of Sheik Sabah's rule.

But it also came just as stunned Arab leaders watched the revolt in Tunisia swell into an unstoppable force.

"The absence of political freedoms, tyranny, corruption and the inability to make ends meet _ all these and other problems are the same" around the region, said Jordan-based political analyst Labib Kamhawi.

"The primary cause of all this is the regimes. However, some countries which are able to pre-empt the problems through quick concessions and serious reforms may be able to survive the turbulence."