Last week’s election in Kuwait was the most interesting, but in many ways also the most depressing, in that country’s history. Technically, the process was better than ever, but the results are deeply troubling.
Much of Kuwaiti society appears to have retreated to its most primal identity groupings, and it seems fractured as never before. Tensions between urban constituencies and more rural tribesmen boiled over into vandalism as the election tent of Mohammed Al-Juwaihel—a candidate who repeatedly suggested that Bedouin tribesmen, especially of the large Mutairi clan, were fundamentally disloyal—was burned to the ground. He nonetheless won a seat in the Third District (out of five in Kuwait, with 10 seats each), which has been considered a diverse constituency, either in spite of, or worse still because of, his aggressively intolerant rhetoric.
Religious sectarianism was also stronger than ever, with Shia candidates hoping, probably in vain, to protect their interests by continuing to ally with the royal family. They now face empowered opponents such as Mohammed Hayef Al-Mutairi, elected in the Fourth District, who specialize in vitriolic anti-Shia demagoguery.
The Muslim Brotherhood won four seats and their close allies another three, beating their all-time best of six. It marks a major comeback from 2009 when the Brotherhood was down to only one parliamentarian. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist politicians deftly claimed credit for protests late last year that finally brought down the deeply unpopular and long-serving prime minister, even though they were late-comers to the movement and their grandstanding showed the crassest opportunism. But clearly their strategy of hijacking the protests worked well at the polls.
Pro-government forces and liberals, such as they are, both took a severe drubbing at the hands of various forms of conservative and identity-candidates. Most depressingly, there are no women at all in the new parliament, with all four incumbent females ousted.
This situation is a prescription for deadlock as the ruling family retains most power and can, and probably will, dissolve parliament before long if it goes too far in harassing the executive. Knowing this, the majority of opposition parliamentarians may keep their powder dry for now, not wanting to be seen as a source of constant deadlock. But sooner or later tensions will almost certainly again boil over.
But the biggest scandal in Kuwait, and one that has received very little local, regional and international attention, is the plight of the stateless in that country. There are an estimated 120,000 people “without citizenship” (bidoun jinsiya), among 1.6 million citizens, who are themselves divided into a hierarchy of classifications that allot varying rights and responsibilities. Most bidoun are by any measure, and under stated provisions of Kuwaiti law, entitled to citizenship, but live in limbo without basic rights and legal status.
Very few Kuwaiti politicians and organizations pay the least attention to this issue, unless it is to attack the bidoun and oppose their rights. Bidoun have been increasingly organizing and protesting during the past year, but the government recently announced that they were not allowed to protest and that any who did would be deported. It is not clear, however, to where they could be deported.
In Kuwait, even peaceful protest is a right reserved solely to those classified as “citizens.” Unlike protesting “citizens,” bidoun have been routinely beaten, tear gassed and rounded up without charge or legal representation.
Bidoun issues are handled by a committee headed by a noted opponent of their rights. This committee announced reforms in November 2010 that remain almost entirely unfulfilled. Last year the government promised to address the stateless issue, but added that only 34,000 bidoun were eligible to be naturalized. It is estimated that 100,000 applications are pending but only 16,000 have been approved in the past two decades. Kuwait has never approved more than 2,000 such requests in any given year.
The victory of Islamist and tribal opposition candidates, lack of sympathy for the bidoun in most of Kuwaiti society and in the royal family, and intensified divisions among Kuwaiti citizens do not bode well for the bidoun, who have precious few allies. The shameful silence on this issue by the United States, one of the only countries with any real influence in Kuwait, only makes matters worse.
The Kuwaiti elections were fascinating, and in a grim way even entertaining. However, they offer little hope for the most vulnerable in the country—the bidoun and also the large numbers of migrant, and especially migrant domestic, workers. Government promises to address the plight of these communities have proven hollow in the past. Nothing in the election results gives any real hope that these urgent moral issues will be seriously addressed in the near future. Kuwaiti society appears more divided than ever, and suspicion, hatred and demagoguery are the order of the day.