Kuwait protesters bring reform demands to streets

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2011 1:53 PM
Kuwait protesters bring reform demands to streets

More than 1,000 protesters called Tuesday for sweeping political changes in Kuwait as the surge for reforms around the Arab world moved into another Gulf state.

Security forces stood by as more demonstrators moved into an area outside a building holding key offices including Kuwait's emir and the prime minister, who is accused by pro-reform groups of stifling political freedoms and muzzling dissent.

No violence was reported, but police had earlier blockaded a central square in Kuwait City and forced protesters to a parking lot across from the government building.

Although the protests mark the first in Kuwait since the stunning Arab uprisings, the oil-rich Gulf nation is no stranger to political showdowns. Kuwait has the region's most powerful parliament and opposition lawmakers have waged open battles against the ruling system, including nearly bringing down the prime minister two times with no-confidence votes.

One of the protest slogans: "Leave! We deserve better!" Others waved banners saying "New country with a new prime minister."

"We need to change the constitution to give more rights to the people," said a veteran opposition lawmaker, Ahmed al-Khaeid. "It's not about changing a person. It's about changing a way of thinking."

The planned rallies were timed to dovetail with the return of parliament from a nearly monthlong recess.

One of the first acts was the swearing-in of the new interior minister, whose predecessor was dismissed in January following an uproar when a suspect accused of illegal liquor sales was beaten to death in police custody.

But the main target of Kuwait's opposition remains the prime minister, Sheik Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah, a nephew of Kuwait's emir. Protesters also seek to break the exclusive grip on power by the ruling family, which holds all major government posts and controls the oil riches in the world's fourth-largest producer.

But there are no calls to challenge the standing of the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah.

One of the protest organizers, Hamid al-Olayan, said forcing a total government overhaul was the ultimate objective.

"All of us have just one slogan: a new Cabinet and a new prime minister," he said.

The Gulf is already gripped by unprecedented political unrest.

Bahrain's monarchy has been hit by more than three weeks of protests and clashes. A senior Bahraini opposition leader, Hassan Mushaima, said he would support demands to oust Bahrain's monarchy if that becomes the overwhelming sentiment of protesters whose chants have increasingly targeted the 200-year-old dynasty.

Smaller protests have flared in Saudi Arabia and Oman, where more than 150 people gathered outside the state TV headquarters in the capital Muscat on Tuesday to demand more media freedoms.

Last month, police in Kuwait used tear gas to disperse protests by descendants of desert nomads demanding Kuwait citizenship and the generous state benefits that come with it.