The Muslim countries of the Middle East have a long tradition of winner-take-all politics that today hampers efforts to institute democratic practices. Yet, there is progress. Turkey has a substantial record of holding elections and living with the results. And now Kuwait has taken the lead among the Arabic-speaking states toward civil society and representative government. While there is no single path to democracy, a study of the experience of Kuwait helps understand what Arab countries face is the years ahead.
Arab and Islamic culture display a strong affinity for a winner-take-all view of politics rather than a pluralistic view. This means that the group (family, tribe) has more importance than the individual, while similarities (even if false) have precedence over differences. It also means that politics tends to focus on gaining and keeping power, usually under a tribal or a religious banner, rather than representating the citizenry.
Pluralism having no place in this type of politics, dissent is by definition illegal. Indeed, opposition has been synonymous through history with treason or defection. A recent example from Egypt typifies this outlook: A group of intellectuals convened a conference on minorities in the Arab world and included among their subjects the Copts (Egyptian Christians, composing around 10 percent of the country's population). But then all hell broke loose, with the press, intellectuals, and other opinion leaders objecting to the idea both of the conference and that Copts constitute a minority in Egypt. Coptic leaders--religious and political alike--distanced themselves from the conference, fearing that any unwanted attention would only worsen their already difficult position in Egyptian society and politics. Governments from far and wide in the Middle East announced their opposition to the idea of the conference, for none liked the idea of a public forum to discuss the persecution of such groups as the Baha'is in Iran, the Kurds and Shi`a in Iraq, or the Christians in Sudan. Pluralism has a long road to travel in Middle East politics when the majority does not acknowledge the very existence of minorities.
The winner-take-all view of politics is especially alive and well in today's Egypt and Algeria, where fundamentalist Muslims claim to possess the one true interpretation of Islam; those who disagree with them are not true Muslims. In both countries, fundamentalists have provoked a deep crisis by calling for the forcible overthrow of existing governments and the creation of an "authentically" Islamic state. At the same time, they assault foreigners, non-Muslims, and secular Muslims. That the winner-take-all view extends to secular totalitarian states like Iraq and Syria reinforces the point that the rejection of pluralism is culturally based and historically rooted in Islam.
This outlook creates a terrible dilemma for democrats in the Arab world, for the ballot box may bring leaders to power, presumably fundamentalists, who themselves reject democracy. "One man, one vote, one time" is a legitimate worry. A good number of Arab intellectuals draw comparisons between what could happen in some of their countries and what happened in prewar Germany, when the Nazis won a parliamentary majority, then ended German democracy. This issue particularly concerns those few Arab countries that seek to promote democracy through civil society.
Even in those Arab countries with some sort of participatory government, the role of political parties is very limited. King Hasan of Morocco selected a nonparty to form the government after the last elections in September 1993. With the exception of the fundamentalists, political parties performed weakly and inefficiently in Jordan in the November 1993 elections. Even parties that actually govern in the Arab world depend very heavily on the government bureaucracy, to such an extent that there is usually no dividing line between the two.
In elections, those governing parties always took the majority of the votes; the government ensures that the opposition is small in number and weak in stature, which damages the development of a strong civil society. In those countries, only the Islamic parties and groups have any grassroots support. Another important feature of democracy in the West is the peaceful transfer of executive power. This process does not take place in many Arab countries, and it will be a while before the transfer of executive power in a democratic way is adopted by these regimes.
In this context, we see just how advanced is Kuwait, with more balance between political forces and a stronger civil society than in most other Arab countries.
The Kuwaiti Case
There is no single path to democracy. While the general concepts comes from the West, the machinery of implemention must be developed to reflect the tradition, history, and general social environment of each country. No one theory of democracy suits every situation in every country. The English constitution suits England, while Kuwaiti history defines the opportunities and limitations of democracy in Kuwait. Kuwaitis find the expansion of democracy to be a painful, difficult, and slow process. This is so not because those who govern refuse to allow democracy but because a changing of attitudes takes time, plenty of time.
Kuwait is one of the very few states in the Middle East with a written constitution, separation of powers, rights of free speech, fair elections, and a parliament with a genuinely popular mandate. Its government is probably the only one in the Middle East not holding political prisoners. If democracy is an active peaceful engagement of debate through channels safeguarded by a constitution accepted and adhered to by all, then Kuwait is a democratic society with a democratic government. That said, it is not a full-fledged democracy, nor, frankly, should it become one. Kuwait is an Arab and Islamic society, not a fully modernized Western society; no apology is needed for that. Though the idea of Western-style democracy is supported by a good number of people and groups in Kuwait, important factors limit the growth of full-fledged Western democracy in Kuwait.
Until the 1950s, Kuwait was a traditional Persian Gulf society with a small population and very limited resources. While the country's oil potential was recognized toward the end of World War II, the influx of oil money did not come until the time of independence from Great Britain in 1961. However small Kuwait's population (around 1.2 million today), the country contains a complex fabric of religious, tribal, family, and ideological interest groups.
Democracy emerged in Kuwait not so much because of merchant family involvement in politics (a widely held view), but due to such factors as the country's geographical location, the enlightenment of its rulers, its oil wealth, and its accepting the ideas of Arab naturalism.
Kuwait's formal experience with democracy began with two primitive assemblies, one convened in 1920, and the other in 1938. Neither of these early experiences with representative government lasted very long but they established a model, and they have in turn become a part of Kuwait's democratic tradition. In particular, they influenced the 1962 constitution, one of the most democratic in spirit to be found in the Middle East. This constitution combines popular and royal authority; it provides for a freely elected National Assembly with broad legislative powers, while giving the emir some legislative authority too. The National Assembly's real authority means that Kuwait is not an absolute monarchy, while the emir's many powers make him more than a constitutional monarch. The 1962 constitution remains in force today, an indication of its suitability to Kuwait.
In addition to the National Assembly, the constitution provides other freedoms and rights essential to a democracy, including freedom of practicing religion and freedom of the press. Kuwait today has one of the most free presses in the Arab world; political issues are discussed openly and frankly, and wide-ranging debates are conducted in the press by advocates of varying political positions. Kuwait has five daily newspapers published in Arabic and two in English, in addition to several weekly or monthly publications covering political events.
While liberal in spirit, the constitution has also legitimated laws limiting political activity and given the executive branch very broad powers, so much so that tension between the government and National Assembly dominates the political culture of Kuwait. The Sabah family points out that it has modernized and liberalized the political system far beyond what any other traditional ruling family in the Gulf Cooperation Council has done, giving the people a wide space to govern themselves while itself participating much more in politics. But the family also feels entitled to extensive powers and privileges. This has led a portion of the opposition, ever-shifting in its composition, to try to undermine the legitimacy of the Al Sabah (the ruling family). They approach politics with a zero-sum mentality: anything that enhances the family's position is bad. This has caused many political crises in Kuwait; with luck, the opposition will outgrow this attitude and cooperate where possible, for in the end Kuwaiti democracy can survive only if the executive and legislative branches work together.
The past three decades have also witnessed a series of dangerous events in the region--several Arab-Israeli wars, the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait--all of which have made democracy difficult to sustain. Indeed, the emir's suspensions of the National Assembly in 1976 and 1986 responded mainly to outside events. However unfortunate the two suspensions, they do not appear to have had a long-term impact. Rather, the method of curing the ills of democracy with more democracy is working. Through three decades, Kuwait has been an oasis of liberalism in a desert of dictatorship and autocracy.
The 1992 Election
In an effort to leave behind the old winner-take-all outlook and become more pluralistic, individuals with opposing political viewpoints have begun taking steps to demonstrate that their differences do not stand in the way of their shared commitment to democracy. Despite disagreements in outlook and ideology, an alliance of seven opposition groups, hoping to learn from past mistakes, agreed in 1992 on a common pre-election program to protect the integrity of the campaign and thus assure a democratic process. Opposition in this campaign meant being against some of the government's current policies, not the structure of the government itself. In fact, the 1992 elections showed a new spirit of comity in Kuwaiti politics; Islamic groups and liberal groups acted far more maturely than in the past.
The election results showed strong support for three Islamic groups, two Sunni and one Shi`i, which together won twenty-two out of fifty seats. Tribal representatives, both pro-government and in the Islamic opposition, did well, and a good number of independents in the moderate opposition won seats. Liberals and non-tribal pro-government candidates, however, did poorly. Although the assembly has a majority of opposition members, they are very much divided in their goals. To represent these many viewpoints, the prime minister selected six elected members, including liberals, fundamentalists, Shi`is, and tribal leaders, to serve in the cabinet.
The Kuwaiti public has a number of political priorities in mind: balance the budget, reform and restructure the economy, modernize education, expand the law on citizenship and freedom of the press, cut back on government bureaucracy, implement privatization, and (above all) assure the country's external security. These problems, and especially the issue of balancing the budget and restructuring the economy, demand some action on the part of the government and the assembly. Yet these and a score of other issues are still pending.
For this, the public blames both the government and the National Assembly. Instead of tackling Kuwait's real problems, the parliamentarians have devoted a great deal of energy to the issue of women wearing the veil and to changing an article of the constitution to make the Shari`a (the sacred law of Islam) not just a principal source of legislation but the only source of legislation. A good number of people feel that these are marginal issues and that the groups promoting these issues are seeking ideological gains at the expense of Kuwait's welfare. Democratization will not benefit the majority unless the opposition parties and opinion leaders abandon their old style of radical confrontation with the government and adopt a policy of coexistence.
Kuwait's democracy has experienced ups and downs, and more are probably in the offing as the country takes up such problems as extending suffrage to women and naturalized citizens (along with their descendants), as well as allowing political parties to organize. It's critical that democracy not fragment Kuwaiti society along tribal, sectarian, and religious lines. Intellectuals and opinion leaders in Kuwait commonly object not to democracy but to the way that it is practiced in their country. Khalifa al-Luqayan, a leading Kuwaiti poet and writer, recently expressed this sentiment:
Democracy, as we understand it, is a way of citizen participation in the affairs of society. But unfortunately it brings us inexcusable behavior by awakening tribal and sectarian fanaticism. What we saw in the 1992 elections for the Assembly, municipal council, and cooperatives--voting for tribal and sectarian reasons--will fragment our society rather than unite it.1Conditions in Kuwait have reached near maturity, yet it should always be remembered that such a process is by nature slow, and that maturation depends, internally, on the development of social and economic factors, and externally, on a more peaceful coexistence in the region, with progressive economic and political development. If Kuwait can take these steps forward, it may have an immense impact not just on Kuwait itself but also on developments in the entire region. Only time will tell.
Liberal groups in the Middle East are at this point fragmented and weak. At the same time, pressures to regroup and speed up reform among the more urban and liberal-oriented sectors of society are gaining momentum. Public debate and long-term experience with the democratic process should eventually create the conditions for a more reasoned, forward-looking view among the population. This means a decrease in the number of fundamentalists, especially those who oppose any sort of political pluralism.
This analysis has an important implication for the West. Today, the U.S. and other governments are promoting democracy as they know it, without a prudent consideration of what the results might be. While it is advisable that Washington push for more liberalization and human rights policy in Kuwait, it must also acknowledge the danger of tampering with an established political and social fabric by imposing what Americans consider to be the ideal mechanism of democracy. As recent developments in the Middle East have shown (for example, in Lebanon and Yemen), a form of democracy that is incompatible with a society can cause real harm, even leading to civil war.
How Kuwait's Parliament Functions
Kuwait has twenty-five election districts, each of which elects two members. Thus, the National Assembly has fifty elected members. In addition, it has between eleven and sixteen other members, that is, cabinet ministers who serve ex-officio in the National Assembly. The constitution does not allude to the creation of political parties, neither approving of nor prohibiting them. In theory, the government does not allow them to exist, though political "groups" (tajammu`at) with overt political views do exist and fulfill the role of parties elsewhere. They cannot, however, form a government; that is the right of the prime minister, who is appointed by the Emir.
Kuwait's first parliamentary election took place in 1963, and its most recent occurred in October 1992. All of the seven general elections have been ruled free and fair, with the possible exception of one election in 1967. Not only does the emir not determine election results in advance, but government-endorsed candidates very frequently lose. Kuwait's National Assembly thus is considered to represent the will of the Kuwaiti people--in contrast to so many Parliaments in the Arab world.
The emir traditionally chooses the crown prince as prime minister, making the prime minister always a leading member of the ruling Sabah family (today, he is Shaikh Sa`d, a cousin of Emir Jabir al-Ahmad as-Sabah). Members of the ruling family do not run for office, so the prime minister is never an elected member of the assembly. The prime minister has so far always made up his cabinet mostly from the ruling family and other figures not in the National Assembly, though the constitution requires that at least one member of the cabinet be an elected member of the assembly. In years past, the cabinet in fact contained only one or two elected members of the assembly; today it includes five of them. The emir can dissolve the assembly, which he did for two long periods, 1976-80 and 1986-92..
Kuwait's constitution makes all cabinet officers also members of the assembly with full voting rights; today, then, the Assembly has sixty-one members, fifty elected and eleven appointed. Appointed members bias voting somewhat in the government's favor, but it is by no means rare for the assembly to vote against the government. More commonly, the government designs its legislative bills to accommodate the members' wishes so they will pass. The constitution also permits the assembly to cast a vote of no confidence in a minister; initiate a policy of no-cooperation with the prime minister; question ministers and investigate government conduct; establish investigative committees; and discuss any issue that it finds appropriate.
By authority of a law passed after liberation, the assembly's Accounting Office provides independent supervision of expenditures of public funds. Today, committees are actively investigating various financial scandals, especially difficulties experienced by the Kuwaiti office in charge of investments abroad. In all, Kuwaitis know far more about their government's expendidtures than the citizens of most other countries in the region.
Mohammed Al Rumaihi is the editor of Al-`Arabi magazine and the author of many books, including Beyond Oil (London: Al Saqi, 1986).1 Al-Qabas, Feb. 20, 1994.