Posts Tagged 'democracy'

Live from Kuwait: …democratization?

By: Jon Nordenson

There’s never a dull moment in Kuwaiti politics, but the last few days have been exceptional. In an unprecedented verdict, the constitutional court last week deemed the dissolution of the previous parliament unconstitutional, and reinstated it. Thus; the 2012 elections were declared null and void, and the oppositional parliament it produced is to be replaced by the less oppositional 2009-parliament. However, last night, thousands of protesters begged to differ; they even demanded a full parliamentary system. Are we witnessing a transition towards a more democratic system in Kuwait?

As I have written earlier, Kuwaiti politics have been in a state of constant crisis since Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad’s ascendance to the premiership in 2006. A campaign (or rather several campaigns) to oust him eventually succeeded last winter, and Sheykh Jabir al-Mubarak replaced him. Then the parliament was dissolved, and new elections called for. These elections produced a clear oppositional majority in the new parliament, which now has been dissolved. The term “oppositional majority” might sound somewhat strange, but this stems from the fact that the government in Kuwait is appointed, not formed based on a parliamentary majority. Thus, the situation was that the majority of the parliament was seen as oppositional towards the government.

This parliamentary majority did, not surprisingly, continue to question government ministers, though not in such a harsh way as before. This may not be surprising either; if they had gone too far, the Emir might have dissolved parliament (as has happened many times before when the opposition question ministers), and all their electoral gains would have been lost. Nevertheless, the government seems to have viewed the situation as quite problematic; before the ruling of the constitutional court, the Emir issued a decree suspending parliamentary activities for a month (which would have lasted until their summer holiday, effectively suspending parliamentary activities until October).

Then came the ruling of the constitutional court, which is final. Their argument was that the Emir dissolved the 2009-parliament following Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad’s resignation, but before Sheykh Jabir al-Mubarak had formed a new Government. Thus, the dissolution took place without a Government, which is unconstitutional. What is supposed to happen next is as follows; the current Government resigns (which it did yesterday), a new Government corresponding to the 2009 parliament is formed, former speaker of parliament Jasim al-Khurafi resumes his work, reconvenes the 2009 parliament, and they continue until their term expires in 2013. However, this is not likely to happen, as a majority of the 2009 parliament protest the court’s verdict and refuses to reconvene. Thus, as described by al-Qabas newspaper today, the most likely scenario is as follows; a new government is formed, the old parliament is reconvened but unable to perform its duties, the government asks the Emir to dissolve it, and new elections are held. Again.

The oppositional majority of the 2012 parliament has staunchly opposed the court’s verdict, deeming it political and unconstitutional. As mentioned, a rally was held outside parliament last night, under the heading “we won’t surrender”, drawing thousands of people (estimates vary, but most place the number at between 30 000 and 40 000). A new movement has also been launched; the “return of the majority”-movement. However, the most remarkable thing about last night’s rally was not the protest against the verdict or the rather impressive turnout; it was the demands put forward by the MPs (demands that have also been launched in the media by the same MPs): a full parliamentary system, with an elected Government, and Kuwait as a constitutional monarchy. These demands have been raised by youth movements for well over a year, but now a majority of the (ousted) MPs support them as well. Seemingly, the struggle for democratization in Kuwait has taken a big leap forward. There are, however, several factors at play one should bear in mind:

–          The Hadar/Badu split: Kuwait has been described as a divided society, and one split is between the Hadar (city-dwellers) and Badu (tribal) parts of the population. The Hadar have traditionally held on to the lion’s share of both money and power, whereas the Badu, in spite on constituting a majority of the electorate, are underprivileged in both arenas (which is part of the reason why many demand one electoral district). Not surprisingly, the Badu have been at the forefront of both the campaign against Nasir al-Muhammad, the opposition in parliament, and the campaigns for democratization. Thus, some have deemed the ouster of al-Muhammad and the opposition’s success in the last elections a “tribal revolution”, antagonizing many Hadar. (now) Former MP Muhammad al-Juwaihil has made a career out of this division, constantly making derogatory remarks about the tribes, and questioned their rights in Kuwait under the less than charming heading “Kuwait for Kuwaitis”. The tribes have taken the bait and lashed out against al-Juwaihil, on one occasion burning down his campaign tent. In other words; we might be witnessing an increased polarization of Kuwaiti society.

–          This also goes for sectarianism: about one third of Kuwaitis are Shias, and sectarian tension is a very sensitive subject in Kuwait. Following the “Arab Spring”, the issue has come to the fore. Whereas Kuwaiti Shias generally support the democratic movement in Bahrain, many Sunni politicians and activists have branded it as Iranian interference. Some Sunni politicians – who are part of the opposition – have also accused Shia politicians of lying in Parliament. It should be noted here that most of the Shia MPs were among Nasir al-Muhammad’s closest allies.

–          The Democratic credentials of the opposition: though the demands put forward now seems as important steps towards a more democratic Kuwait, not all parts of the opposition’s track record are equally persuasive. With regards to Bahrain, they have generally not supported the (Shia) democratic movement, whereas they have taken the opposite stance towards the (Sunni) uprising in Syria. Many of the oppositional MPs have supported tougher laws on blasphemy, even advocating death penalty for insults to the prophet. Not all support female MPs and ministers, and one has made negative remarks towards Kuwait allowing churches to be built in the country. The opposition is complex and consists of different groups and ideologies, but many would find it difficult to call it an unambiguously democratic opposition as such.

–          Disagreements within the royal family: there are differences within the ruling family as to which direction Kuwait should take for the future. One persistent rumor has it that some parts of the family are fed up with political bickering hindering any economic development, and are enviously looking to Qatar and the Emirates. Another point is the fight for power; many ambitious members of the ruling family seek their share of power, and try to position themselves. Often, they have allies in parliament and otherwise, giving the infighting wider effects. This has gone so far that the leading newspaper al-Qabas took the unprecedented step and spoke of it on their front page.

There are of course other important factors in play as well. For instance, the fight against corruption, an ever present phenomenon in Kuwait, is at once both very real and the favored accusation used by the opposition as well as pro-government forces. The tribes’ demand for democratic reform may of course be interpreted both as a step towards a more democratic Kuwait, or as the tribes using it for their own benefit, as they stand to win from more proportional representation. Kuwaiti politics is chaotic at the moment, and sometimes quite messy, and certainly unpredictable. But this might be just what democratization looks like. Many different forces with different motives are involved, some probably less noble than others. Yet; if more power is to be moved to democratically elected institutions, others have to give up said powers, which naturally will be a contested process. There is hardly any surprise in a process of democratization being a messy and unpredictable one, and these are adjectives that fit well with Kuwaiti politics at the moment. But one thing is, at least, certain: the question of a full parliamentary system has been raised by MPs, and many will probably feature this in their programs in the next elections (which, I expect, will happen shortly). Given the populist nature of Kuwait’s electoral campaigns, the proposal might very well gain considerable support should the electorate respond positively to it.


Iran and the Democratic Struggle in the Middle East

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in the mid 19th century to explain the meaning of what they called; a specter that was haunting Europe, ‘the  specter of Communism’ and pointed to  “a holy alliance [trying] to exorcise this specter: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”[1] The specter of communism was the metaphor Marx and Engels used to describe the popular struggle that was going to reconfigure the political scene in Europe entirely. According to twentieth century interpretations the 19th century struggles changed the criteria for deciding who has the right to govern and popularized the idea that all citizens have equal rights to govern. But this democratic idea did not prevent the labor party government in Britain (1945-1951), with a history that can be traced back to the Communist Manifesto, to do all that was in its power to get rid of the specter of democracy in the Middle East displayed by the Mosadiq nationalist government, the only democratic government in the region in the early 1950s.[2]

Since the late 19th century the specter of democracy has haunted the Middle East and Iran in particular under the guise of socialism, nationalism and Islamism but the democratic kernel of these movements has been eliminated from within or by external forces. These days that the specter of democracy appears with its real name in the Middle East; it seems stronger than the “new holy alliance” that tries to get rid of it. The new holy alliance consists, of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States and many European states that have opposed democracy in  the Arab countries because of their concern for, “stability”, the “peace process”, “orderly transition toward democracy”, and “human rights”, and Iran’s leadership which opposes democracy in Iran but supports it elsewhere. Iran’s regime assumes that the current Iranian democratic movement known as the Green Movement serves the American interests in the region and is backed by the US. Officially, Iran supports the democratic struggles in none-friendly or less friendly countries such as  Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, but it prosecutes its own citizens when they  demand the same political rights that the Egyptians’, Yemenis’, and  Bahrainis’ demand.

Two weeks ago, the leaders of the Green Movement, called upon the Iranian people to take to the streets on 14 February as a gesture of solidarity with Egyptians and Tunisians.[3] Mir-Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi, the leaders of the Movement, sent a formal request to Iran’s interior ministry to make security arrangements for the suggested day of solidarity with Tunisians and Egyptians in their struggle for democracy. The call for demonstration in support of the Egyptians and Tunisians put the leadership of the Islamic Republic in a difficult situation. While approval of the Green Movement’s request would result in de facto recognition of the Movement and its democratic demands by the current leadership, denying the Movement to show its solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia would expose the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime which claimed to have supported democratic struggles in these countries.[4] In order to avoid the embarrassment, Ahmadinezhad’s government did not respond to the request of the leaders of the movement. However, despite the tight presence of security forces, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the street of Tehran and several other cities. But unlike 2009 and 2010 demonstrations in which the demonstrators were chanting against Ahmadinezhad, 14 February demonstrations targeted Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and the demonstrators demanded resignation of the leader. There are several reasons for portraying 14 February demonstrations as a turning point in history of the Islamic Republic. On one hand, the moderate conservatives who have shown sympathy with the Green Movement or remained silent since the disputed presidential election in 2009, started to condemn 14 February demonstrations and accused the leaders of the Movement to have broken away from the Islamic Republic in order to serve the interests of the US.[5] On the other hand, the leaders of the Green Movement compared the Islamic Republic with the pre-revolutionary monarchy deposed in 1979.[6] Yet the leaders of the Green Movement claim that they have remained true to the constitution of the Islamic Republic.[7] For the leaders of the Green Movement the Iranian constitution not only guarantees freedom of expression and assembly, and free and fair elections but also authorizes constitutional changes toward more a democratic constitution through referendum.[8]

In actual fact the specter of democracy has been all over the Middle East since the late 19th century, but the political moment which could contribute to its materialization has not occurred in such a wide and intensive manner. The current democratic political movements in the Middle East are in no way a result of the US or European projects of democratic reforms in the region. The project of building good governments which respect the basic human rights did not take into account that democracy was about the right of all members of every society to govern their common affairs. The twisting of democracy into good government and protection of human rights was based on some distorted assumptions. It was assumed, for instance, that since democracy was congruent with the current definition of interests of the US and Europe in the region, they presented as the only conceivable force to guarantee both building and protecting a democratic future in the region, a democratic future that has never come, because it has constantly been postponed. The postponing of democracy in the Middle East has been justified through the knowledge produced on this region. According to the knowledge produced on the Middle East the region is not ready for democracy unless its people are emancipated from their mode of being through gradual education carried out by the guarantors of democracy.

Now the reality of the democratic struggle in the Middle East tells us that the people of this region like all human beings everywhere can not only educate themselves but educate their educators. Not unexpectedly, in order to keep the traditional position of the educator of this region, the educators raise the question whether the current struggles in the Arab countries choose the failed Iranian model that is an Islamic state or the successful Turkish model.[9] The necessary requirement for raising the Iranian and Turkish models as examples of success and failure is total ignorance of the recent history of the region. The Turkish model as a success history is based on an historical amnesia. It forgets that with the eruption of the Iranian revolution and the raise of the Islamic Republic in Iran, this country was surrounded by the most brutal dictatorships in the history of Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan, all supported by the US and Europe, and Iran had to endure a brutal war with a member of this Western oriented axis of dictatorship until the late 1980s. In an area surrounded entirely by dictatorships, Iran’s attempts to unfold its own democracy is expressed very clearly in its 1979 constitution which until recently was the only constitutional law made by democratically elected constitutional parliament in the entire region. The politicians who support or lead the democratic struggle in Iran these days are the same people who founded, defended, and led the Islamic Republic in 1980s while Turkey was a vicious dictatorship and a US-European ally. So the prediction about the future of the Arab democratic struggle with regard to these two political alternatives is based on the one hand, on the confusion of the democratic potentials of the Iranian revolution with the current regime of Iran and a selective narrative of the Turkish politics since the late 1970s and early 1980s. This narrative would like to forget that Turkey was allowed by its Western allies to think and act for itself only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The absurdity of the comparison between Iran and Turkey does not lie in the fact that the majority of those who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran are the leading members of democratic opposition in Iran, but in the original lessons that both Iranians and Turks can learn from the current Arab democratic struggle and display them on their own political scenes. The lessons of the democratic struggles in the Middle East would be of major significance for anyone who thinks that democracy is not a project achieved and completed by the West as the expression of the end of history and politics, and thus ready to be exported to other places.  The democratic struggle in the Middle East reminds us that democracy is a process through which a people in a society try to overcome democratic deficits of their government regardless of its name and regardless of its position in democracy ranking. This means that the inventiveness of the current democratic struggle in the Middle East would enrich conceptualization of democracy in general, regardless of whether the new holy alliance which is concerned with ‘stability’,  ‘orderly transition toward democracy, the ‘peace-process’, good governments and “human rights” succeed to exorcise the specter of democracy in this region or not.



[1] Marx-Engels,, Coomunist Manifesto

[2] Fakhredin Azimi, Iran : The Crisis of Democrracy, (London: , 2009,I.B.Tauris), p.273

[3] Mir-Hussein Mouusavi, Iran’s prime minister in the 1980s and Mehdi Karubi, Iran’s speaker of parliament in the late 1980s and the early 1990s

[4] Hillary Clinton exploited the situation without hesitation and  said;  Tehran’s crackdown on demonstrators, after it had praised the popular uprising in Egypt, shows the “hypocrisy” of the Iranian government.,

[8],,5202171,00.html and  Iran’s Constitution, Article 59