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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Mohammad Almutawa: Islamists in Kuwait face tough choices

“The ground is set for the birth of a strong secular rights movement”

On February 5, the judicial courts in Kuwait sentenced three former MPs to three years in jail for criticizing the Emir, the country’s ruler. The Emir’s person is constitutionally immune and inviolable and thus cannot be criticized.

The three MPs belong to the opposition, which due to the fact that political parties are banned in Kuwait is hard to define. Following the February 2012 elections, a group of 32 MPs assembled the Majority Bloc, the largest bloc (numbers-wise) in the history of Kuwait’s parliament. The block had difficulties organizing itself given the absence of a clear goal or agenda, but its members did manage to stick together as an opposition to the government.

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The largest group in the opposition is the Islamists. Both members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi-influenced Salafi Movement had a sizable presence in the Majority Bloc. However, the opposition’s most vocal member is Musallam Al-Barrak, a member of the Popular Bloc which focuses on anti-corruption and wasteful spending. Musallam along with the three indicted MPs all face possible jail time for criticizing the Emir.

The court’s ruling against the three former MPs has re-energized the opposition which was slowly dying out. Following the Emir’s decision to amend the elections law back in October, some 100,000 individuals (BBC estimate) took to the streets to voice their objection.

Not everyone who took to the streets shared the same ideas. Some considered the amendment an overreach by the Emir, others viewed it as deliberately targeting them. The opposition saw this as an attempt to undermine them, and make it difficult to operate as a group, and therefore decided to call on the people to boycott the elections scheduled for December 1.

The boycott was the opposition’s most successful tactic as it brought voter turnout down to 40%, the lowest in Kuwait’s election history. However, since the elections took place the opposition has failed to execute let alone set a clear agenda. Turnout at rallies and events shrunk significantly, the opposition’s presence in the press was faded out by the newly elected parliament.

The opposition’s main problem is the lack of a founding principle. The Majority Bloc of 32 MPs was very ambiguous in its establishment. It included a majority of Tribal MPs, most with Islamist inclinations, but also some relatively liberal members. At best the Majority Bloc is a reactionary response to a dysfunctional government.  

Historically, Islamist MPs have pioneered and engineered many regressive laws that attempt to limit political rights and civil liberties. Most notably, the Islamist MPs voted against women suffrage in 2004. They also called on a curfew on some women jobs as well as successfully segregating the Kuwait University campus on gender basis. More recently, the Islamist MPs have objected strongly to entrance of musicians and academics who they don’t agree with into Kuwait. Islamists also sought to limit free speech by calling for government monitoring of Shia Mosques as well as an expansion the list of those immune to criticism.

Many of the Islamist MPs saw the Majority Bloc as an opportunity to push a constitutional amendment for Sharia’ Law. The Islamists used the bloc to pass a law putting those who commit blasphemy to death. Furthermore, they attempted to amend the constitution’s 2ndand 79tharticles to make laws Sharia’ compliant. 

Two out of the three MPs that have been sentenced are Islamists, while the third also voted in favor of the blasphemy law. Since the first protest in October, Islamists have found it hard to talk about free speech and free assembly. The opposition believes they are being persecuted for their personhood. They have attacked the judicial system and challenged its transparency rather than attacking the regressive laws that restrict free speech, free press and the right to peaceful assembly.

The Islamist MPs have fallen victim to the laws they have helped draft, laws that do not respect the freedom of speech. However, this is not the time to point fingers, as the number of persecuted for thought crimes and peaceful assembly has mushroomed over the past four months in Kuwait. Human Rights Watch puts the number of those being charged with offending the Emir at 25 individuals since October last year.

If Kuwait had a strong secular movement, this would have been its golden opportunity. Kuwait is in dire need of a movement capable of objecting to the imprisonment of Islamist MPs for exercising their right while waving a finger at them for helping draft regressive laws in the first place. The ground is set for the birth of a strong secular rights movement, one that consists of independent men and women who believe the current situation won't be resolved unless individual rights are granted and stated explicitly in the constitution.

For the time being, we could only hope that the sentence against the three MPs will serve as a realization for them and others like them to review their stance on regulating human rights. As we wait to see what happens next in Kuwait one thing is clear, Islamist will no doubt have to make some choices if they wish to remain relevant in the next chapter.

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