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GCC Rulers Have Learned A Lesson From Kuwait's Parliamentary Move; Lebanon Is Next.

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KUWAIT - The way the Kuwaiti throne passed from the emirate's 13th ruler, through the 14th, to the 15th in a period of nine days to Jan. 24 has provided monarchies in the six-state Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region with a big lesson: that a freely elected parliament with a well-studied constitution can act as a wise mediator and, above all, as guarantor of the country's stability. Kuwait's democratic experience, still lacking in perfection but the most advanced system of government in the GCC, can easily spread across the region with positive implications for the rest of the Greater Middle East (GME).

The Gulf region, by far the biggest reservoir of energy in the world, had just come out with two such developments. A parliament and government with a four-year term in Iraq were elected freely on Dec. 15. That was the first such experience in Iraq's history; but the constitution adopted by the Iraqis on Oct. 15 needs to be carefully amended. Otherwise there could be a sectarian war in Iraq, with dire implications for Iran (see news5-IraqGovt-Jan30-06)

In December UAE President and Abu Dhabi ruler Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan promised that half its consultative council will be freely elected - this being the first step towards a democracy. On Jan. 4, Dubai ruler Shaikh Maktoum bin Rashed al-Maktoum died of a heart attack in Australia and was flown back. He was immediately succeeded by the crown prince and strongman of Dubai, his younger brother Shaikh Muhammad. On Jan. 5, Shaikh Muhammad became vice president and prime minister of the UAE - as Shaikh Maktoum was laid to rest (see fap1-UAE-4-DubaiDemoJan16-06).

In Oman Sultan Qaboos recently resolved the problem over succession to the throne as he outlined this in a letter deposited with one of his aides. Oman is accelerating efforts to diversify its economy as its oil production is in decline (see survey of Oman in last week's APS Review - in omt5OmanProspJan30-06 & down5OmanEnBasJan30-06).

Kuwait's freely elected National Assembly has long been seen in GCC ruling family circles as an inconvenient anomaly. That it has often proved a forum for fruitless confrontation has been useful for the region's dynastic autocrats when resisting pressure for change.

Yet the Jan. 15-24 events, in which the Assembly played a central role in mediating and then ending a nine-day leadership crisis by ousting Kuwait's ailing 14th emir, have dramatically changed the equation, strengthening the hand of reformers across the GCC. They have restored Kuwait's historic position as a standard-bearer for Arabs demanding greater say in government.

On Jan. 25, the repercussions were being felt from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar to the UAE and Bahrain. All these states have been wrestling, under varying degrees of domestic and US pressure, with the notion of elected assemblies. The Lebanese are trying to revive the oldest democracy in the GME, seeking true freedom from Syria's Ba'thist dictatorship.

The overwhelming win of Hamas, the Islamist group, in the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary elections came as a shock to US promoters of GME democratisation. The event stunned the world and came on the heels of a "shocking" victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections. The MB, by far the biggest and most disciplined among groups opposed to Mubarak's regime, has become a serious threat to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

In his 2005 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush committed the US to "stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world". He pointedly told America's Arab friends in Egypt and Saudi Arabia he was making a "generational commitment" to democracy, analogous to the cold war, and that they should shape up. But, as the Financial Times on Jan. 31 put it, "in the year since America's liberty bell pealed through Arab lands, it has mostly been Islamic revivalists rather than Abu Jeffersons who have won such elections as there have been".

The cleanest and the clearest was the Palestinian contest which "disgorged Hamas", formerly known as the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, with a thumping majority. Bush had to dwell on the subject in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 31, but US policy nonetheless faces a real dilemma. It cannot duck it.

In the post-9/11 era, there is no empathy in Washington for any form of terrorism. Even if there were, Hamas, which has carried out about 60 suicide-bombings against Israel, to whose destruction its founding charter is committed, would not be head of the queue. Yet the US should not retreat from its strategic insight: that it is not democracy which creates extremism, but tyranny and the pervasive sense of injustice caused by running sores such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A shift back to supporting Arab dictatorships and Israeli intransigence is no answer. Nor should Washington and its Western and Arab allies "exaggerate the extent to which Palestinians were voting for rejectionism", the FT added, "so much as punishing the corruption and incompetence of Fatah". All calculations should start from the fact that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Palestinians have regularly backed a two-state solution. That said, Hamas militants are generally not to be found among them - and they are about to form a government. The response to them should emphasise that democracy is not just about voting, but about seeking institutional responses and upholding the rule of law. The FT stressed: "If they [Hamas] are pragmatic, so should we be".

"It may be easier for the Europeans than the Americans to take the lead on this, as they have done on Iran. Short-term, Hamas must extend its truce. It must...formally forswear attacks on civilians. It is not essential it recognises Israel: the Irish constitution did not recognise British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland for 60 years. What is essential is that Hamas behaves as a responsible government. By the same token, the US and close allies such as the UK should stop deferring to the unilateralism whereby Israel is setting new borders to an enlarged state. That voided Fatah's last plausible claim to power: its own ability to negotiate a solution to the occupation". The FT concluded: "Hamas too faces a dilemma: whether to govern or to fight. Let's not make it easy for them".

Bush's promotion of democracy forms the core of US foreign policy. Having assisted Hamas (listed as a terrorist group by the US) to power through elections, which Washington insisted should take place, the Bush administration is in a dilemma in the "war on terror". Does it cut off institutional aid to the Palestinians and thus choke the democratic evolution? And, more broadly, does the US scale back its regional ambitions following the surge of Islamists not just among Palestinians, but also in other parts of the Middle East?

Some in the administration had anticipated a Hamas victory; others were shocked by the outcome. Hardly in a position to denounce the outcome of a vote widely deemed to have been fair, Bush called the elections a healthy process and spoke of the "power of democracy". He said the results had shaken up the "old guard", expressing the dominant view within the administration that the status quo among Palestinians, and more widely in the GME, was unsustainable.

The Hamas win gives an extreme test case for the concept of transformation to moderation through elections - a dream which "realists", many of whom served under the president's father, dismiss as "utopian". Hamas will head a government without a state, with no fixed borders and much of its territory under occupation. Reuel Gerecht, a neo-conservative Middle East specialist at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, says there will not be a reversion to the "realist" status quo policies which prevailed before 9/11. Gerecht says: "Now there is a system with a possibility of evolution. The status quo empowered Hamas. Now there will be a profound debate in the Palestinian territories. This is good".

The powerful pro-Israel lobby was even more dismayed by Bush's insistence, against the wishes of Israel, that Hamas compete in the elections. And presidential hopefuls among the Democrats, including Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, were quick to voice their fears at the outcome. Robert Satloff, head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summed up those feelings last week, attacking the administration for "having such a messianic commitment to the power of elections to transform people that we were blind to the possibility that evil people can exploit democracy for evil ends".

The US has signalled it will not cut off aid to the Palestinians. But it would not fund a government led by Hamas unless it renounces violence and accepts a two-state solution.

The GCC Experience: None of the five other GCC states has gone as far as Kuwait did in the 1960s by giving elected MPs power over decision-making. Most of them have avoided introducing any real government accountability.

Abdul Rahman al-No'aimi, an Islamist university professor and rare dissident voice in Qatar, says of the Kuwaiti Assembly's Jan. 15-24 role: "I hope this will be a lesson for other GCC states that they put more trust in their people. If this crisis had remained solely in the hands of the ruling family it would have gone on for much longer".

When Kuwait's long-term Emir, Shaikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, died on Jan. 15 before addressing the succession issue, rival members of the ruling al-Sabah clan struggled to reach a consensus. Shaikh Jaber was the 13th emir. As he died, Crown Prince Shaikh Sa'd al-Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah automatically became the 14th emir. But Shaikh Sa'd had long been ill and, since 2003, had ceased functioning as a prime minister as this position was taken up by Shaikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the 13th emir's half-brother.

There was a deadlock as Shaikh Sa'd was not able to take the oath as the 14th emir. And there was no crown prince. It fell on the National Assembly to decide the next move by voting on the issue in accordance with Article 3 of the emirate's constitution.

After a dynastic struggle ended bloodily in 1896, the rival al-Jaber and al-Salem branches of the al-Sabah family have alternated in power. That tradition was ostensibly to be undermined if, as expected, Shaikh Sabah, from the al-Jaber, took a throne which Shaikh Sa'd of the al-Salem barely had the chance to occupy. Shaikh Salem al-Ali al-Sabah, the powerful head of the National Guard and leader of the al-Salem branch, had initially sought to prevent this outcome.

Though this jostle for power may not be over, for now it is the muscle of Kuwait's institutions - in particular its assembly - which have won the day. Under Kuwaiti constitution and a 1964 law, parliament must vote by a two-third majority to announce the emir's seat vacant and pave the way for the appointment of a new emir. The ruling family arrived at the decision after a majority voting in the morning of Jan. 20 to overcome the constitutional problem created by the nomination of Shaikh Sa'd as the emir. The nomination was constitutional.

However, around 20 members of the ruling family did not approve Shaikh Sabah's nomination, but the decision was approved by the majority. Family members who attended the Jan. 20 meeting represented all the various branches of the ruling clan, including senior members from the al-Salem branch of Shaikh Sa'd. To resolve the problem over the next two top positions of state, the family voted that Shaikh Muhammad al-Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, currently the Kuwaiti foreign minister, will be nominated as crown prince. Shaikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the interior minister will be promoted to prime minister.

Reformers in the GCC region can argue that, in accordance with the constitution, elected MPs had played the role of ultimate guarantors of stability, not the ruling family. The implications for Saudi Arabia, which remains the only country in the region to be ruled without a constitution, were particularly acute.

King Fahd until his death on Aug. 1 remained monarch despite being incapacitated. In the process, the then Crown Prince Abdullah's margin to implement change was substantially reduced. Bassim Alim, a lawyer in Jeddah whose belief in constitutional rule has got him into trouble in the past, says of the Saudi situation after King Fahd's sudden death: "Everything was put on hold [for ten years since Fahd had a stroke in 1995] because they were afraid of internal struggle. If we had had a proper constitution and a proper parliament we would not have needed all this delay. What happened in Kuwait has created a new atmosphere. There is a new awareness that will not easily be given up".

Ironically, Kuwait's experience over the past decade has given parliaments in the GCC region a bad name. Bad blood between the National Assembly and the al-Sabah-dominated government has paralysed attempts to pursue economic liberalisation. This has partly been the result of tensions between traditionalists and Islamists and more economically liberal, Western-allied regimes, some of which, such as Dubai, have driven through economic change without reference to public opinion. One senior ruling family member said Kuwait had been at the forefront of royal minds when the UAE developed its own nomination procedures for a consultative assembly last year.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Date:Feb 6, 2006
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