The thousands of Arab demonstrators marching in the streets of an Arab capital city this week demanding political reform and the release of their jailed leaders were met with riot police firing tear gas and stun grenades to disperse them.
These events Wednesday and Thursday night were typical for a hot summer evening in today’s Arab world, and occur regularly in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and other Arab lands. These events are especially noteworthy, however, because they happened in Kuwait, and because they keep happening there every few months.
The importance of the Kuwait situation in my mind is enormous, for several reasons that transcend the borders or sentiments of Kuwait itself. Kuwait continues to reveal the fundamental political grievances of citizens in a small, quite homogeneous and wealthy Arab country that has also enjoyed a relatively lively public political sphere for many decades, including an elected parliament and a boisterous press sector.
For several years now thousands of Kuwaitis have regularly taken to the streets to demand a more rigorous government response to allegations of corruption, mismanagement and an unrepresentative parliament. Protesters also represent different discontented groups in society, such as young people, tribal groups, Islamists, nationalists and leftists, and not only the tribal followers of the jailed leader, in this case former parliamentarian Mussallam Barrak.
The particularities here are that the Kuwait public prosecutor earlier this week ordered the detention of Barrak for 10 days after he was questioned and accused of publicly slandering and insulting the supreme judicial council. His hearing in court is set for July 7. Barrak and others accuse former senior officials, including ruling family members, of stealing and laundering tens of billions of dollars.
The charges have led to street demonstrations rather than vigorous parliamentary debates because most opposition groups are no longer represented in parliament, which they boycotted in protest against an amended electoral law that they feel favors pro-government majorities. The citizens who are demonstrating – gassed, sometimes beaten, and in some instances jailed – embody a critically important dynamic that has defined the uprisings across the Arab world in recent years: the insistence by ordinary citizens that they have rights, that they can peacefully demand those rights in public, that they can achieve those rights through political action, and that they can engage their national leaderships in a political debate that touches even sensitive issues such as corruption by members of ruling families.
Kuwait highlights the new reality that Arab citizens are now demanding rights from their governments simply on the basis of being entitled to those rights, and not necessarily because they are poor, suffer uneven access to social services, or have been politically abused and oppressed, as was the case with uprisings in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.
Kuwait also speaks of deeper discontents among other citizens in oil-rich Gulf states who can only express their grievances through websites and social media. This is evident in several Arab countries, which, like Kuwait, try to suppress public political accusations and grievances, even by jailing individuals who Tweet sentiments that are critical of state policies.
The demonstrators in Kuwait are not calling for the overthrow of the regime, but rather for constitutional political reforms. The demonstrators this week chanted their demands to reform the judiciary. When such basic, reasonable and non-violent demands are almost totally ignored across most of the Arab world, citizens have only a few options, including expressing themselves through social media or via pan-Arab satellite television, or by taking to the streets. As with almost every other public protest throughout the world, the actual number of citizens on the street is not the most important factor.
It is irrelevant if 500 or 15,000 demonstrate one night. What matters is that groups of citizens speak out in public on a regular basis, and address their complaints directly to the national leaders. It is likely that those who do take to the streets – for instance, recently in Ukraine, Turkey, Thailand or Burma – represent much deeper and wider legitimate societal grievances that require a political resolution through dialogue, negotiations and credible representation and accountability.
Kuwait remains for me the most fascinating country in the Arab world today because the contestation of its citizens is purely political, rather than ethnic, sectarian, economic or social.
This contestation also reflects grievances that have defined the entire Arab region for several generations now. Kuwait should be the breakthrough country in the Gulf that mirrors the constitutional advances that Tunisia achieved in North Africa – a peaceful transition to constitutional democratic pluralism that others will applaud and emulate across the region.