By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaiti opposition groups plan to stage a joint demonstration on Sunday against new voting rules as a standoff with the government intensifies ahead of an election on December 1.
While opposition groups say the rules are a bid to skew the election, the government, so far spared the mass uprising seen in Arab Spring movements elsewhere, has made clear its determination to stop street protests spilling over into unrest.
Former opposition lawmaker Waleed al-Tabtabie tweeted that opposition groups planned a "large rally" on November 11 to mark the 50th anniversary of the constitution.
He said it will take place in Erada Square, a designated protest area opposite parliament.
While most of the frequent recent protests on the square have been peaceful, some have spread to surrounding streets and to other areas in Kuwait where protests are considered illegal, and resulted in clashes. In recent protests police have used tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse thousands of demonstrators.
Although Kuwait, an OPEC member state and ally of the United States, tolerates more dissent than most other Gulf states, in recent weeks it has begun to emphasize the limits of its tolerance.
On Tuesday the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said there would be no leniency for threats to "the security of the homeland". He has said the changes to voting rules are constitutional and needed to preserve national unity.
On Wednesday, General Prosecutor Dharar al-Asousi was quoted as stressing to prosecutors that they must enforce a new law that expands broad rules banning incitement to strife and the spreading of false rumors.
He said the amendments to the penal code were aimed at "social peace, security and the protection of national unity", according to the state news agency KUNA.
CALLS FOR REFORM
Protesters in Kuwait have been less radical in their demands than demonstrators in other Arab countries, calling for a government that is elected rather than appointed by the ruling family, and for the creation of political parties, which are banned.
Opposition leaders and protesters say the electoral changes passed by royal decree last month are an attempt to give pro-government candidates an advantage in order to create a parliament less adversarial than the previous one, which caused legislative gridlock.
Opposition groups have said they will boycott the election if it is held under the new rules, and the protests have brought together liberals, Islamists, tribal members of parliament and youth groups.
Last month's "Law on Protection of National Unity" amends some aspects of the penal code, notably on social media, which the Information Ministry had said it wanted to regulate.
It makes incitement of strife in "print, visual or audible" form, including social media, illegal - an expansion of the previous definition - and also makes repetition of such statements illegal, according to a text published by KUNA.
The new rules also amend the definition of incitement to include expression of hatred or contempt towards "any groups in the community", KUNA said.
This includes stirring sectarian or tribal strife, as well as "spreading ideas calling for the superiority of one race or group or color or origin or religious doctrine or gender", or calling for acts of violence related to this, KUNA said.
There have been several cases this year of Kuwaitis being charged with stirring strife on social media.
Punishments can include fines or imprisonment. The text says authorities can withdraw the license of any media or communication outlets that are used to publish materials that "threaten national unity".
Kuwait ranked 78 out of 179 territories in a 2011/2012 press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, above Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)