Thursday, February 27, 2003

# Posted 8:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY: KUWAIT. (For earlier posts in the Islam and Democracy series, click here.)

On the front page of today's WaPo there is a long article entitled "Democracy in Kuwait is Promise Unfulfilled". While this headline is 100% accurate, the article does not explain why it is that Kuwait is no closer to democratic rule than it was at the end of the Gulf War.

As the Post correctly reports, Kuwait is a "tightly controlled hereditary emirate" with an elected parliament. While the franchise is restricted to male citizens over the age of 21, elections are essentially fair. Reading the Post article, one has no idea what the significance of parliament is in this tightly controlled hereditary emirate.

Trying to figure out what was going on, I turned to an article by Georgia State Prof. Michael Herb in the Oct. 2002 issue of the Journal of Democracy. It turns out that the Emir's son, the Crown Prince, appoints the cabinet, which is responsible to the Emir and not to the parliament. The cabinet does not need a vote of confidence in parliament in order to take office, nor can it be removed by a vote of no confidence.

The ministries of defense, interior and foreign affairs (known collectively as the ministries of sovereignty) are reserved for members of the royal family, while the rest of the cabinet posts are distributed in a manner reflecting the balance of power in parliament.

The one prerogrative the parliament itself has is to vote no confidence in individual ministers, a prerogative it took advantage of in July 2002. Ironically, the vote reflected an effort by conservative Islamist, Shi'ite and tribal deputies to oust a liberal finance minister. Their effort failed, but narrowly.

Neither the WaPo article nor its JoD counterpart gives much sense of how much control the parliament has over the government, although the latter observes that "the government does sometimes lose important votes, as was the case with parliament's refusal to give women the vote." In a bit of bad reporting, the Post implies that the defeat of women's suffrage was an unmitigated defeat for democracy, rather than exploring the possibility that the conservative opposition's successful resistance to a government sponsored initiative indicates that the royal family does not wield, as the Post would have it, "unquestioned power."

A second critical oversight in both articles is their failure to examine what it is that Kuwait's Islamist opposition wants. Both simply refer to the Islamists as fundamentalist, with the Post mentioning their unsurprising habit of saying nice things about Palestinian martyrs and Osama bin Laden. But are the Islamists interested in taking control of the state? Do they acknowledge the legitimacy of the royal family? Would universal suffrage increase their influence or reduce it? Would an Islamist majority in parliament use it influence to open up the government or just demand special privileges for fundamentalists?

Herb writes that
"fears that an Islamist takeover will result from a partial transition [to democracy] are exaggerated. As much as the sad expereince of Algeria shows the very real dangers of ill-considered attempts at democratization, it is unlikley in the extreme that an Algerian scenario will play out in the Gulf: The ruling families there are too deply ensconced to be ousted by Islamists."

Thus, in Kuwait, the future of democracy depends on the willingness of the Emir and his family to grant their subjects both civil rights and a greater voice in government. In the absence of strong pressure from Washington, however, there is every reason to believe that they won't.

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