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The trappings of democracy.

Is Islam compatible with modern day democracy, or do the faithful have to forego their legitimate ambitions to have a say in the way they are governed in order to be regarded as being good Muslims?

This was the dominant question last month, where the 50-seat Majlis Al-Umma (the National Assembly, or parliament) was dissolved by the Emir, Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah, on 3 May, some 17 months before the end of its term, scheduled for October 2000.

The latest suspension - the third in the parliament's 36-year history - brought to a halt a two-year period of acrimonious and rancorous tension and debate, that blighted the relationship between a feisty parliament and a reluctant cabinet.

However, within days, the Emir, on the recommendation of the cabinet, issued a decree giving women the right to vote and also to run for parliament.

The move has increased the popularity of the government of Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah in contrast to the unpopularity of the old parliament, where debates had become dominated by Islamic issues that largely bypassed women's interests.

The atmosphere of distrust which prevailed in political circles resulted in both cabinet and parliament being weak and ineffective. However, the ultimate clash between the two sides was the result of a row over Islamic books.

Last year Information Minister Sheikh Saud Nasser Al-Sabah resigned when a government book fair was accused of displaying "immoral publications" by Islamist members of Parliament. Sheikh Saud's decision resulted in the mass resignation of the cabinet. The relationship between cabinet and parliament then sank to an all-time low with accusations of mismanagement and corruption becoming commonplace. A general divergence of opinions regarding Kuwait's economic reform package, employment and even electoral districts, deteriorated into prolonged and undignified squabbling between the two sides.

On 3 May, the minister for justice and Islamic affairs was lambasted by members of parliament after a pro-government MP demanded he accept responsibility for the publication and distribution of 120,000 copies of the Holy Koran, both inside and outside Kuwait, with missing or misprinted verses; a serious charge in an Islamic nation, since Muslims believe the Koran to be the exact word of Allah.

The minister faced a vote of no-confidence which he was widely expected to lose. In an attempt to avoid the anticipated chaos, the Emir, in the afternoon before the vote was scheduled to take place, dissolved the National Assembly, the only democratically elected parliament (albeit with limited suffrage) among the Gulf Arab states, and called an election for July.

No one has questioned the constitutional legality of the suspension, or the Emir's right to perform the act. But most Kuwaitis vociferously question the motives of the now defunct government.

Several parliamentary sources told The Middle East that letters citicising parliament's obstructive behaviour were exchanged between the deputy prime minister and the prime minister, long before the call for suspension.

The opposition openly claims the Koran scandal was a set-up orchestrated by the government to justify suspension of the parliament. Around half the cabinet were slated for interpolation in the following few weeks, including the minister of finance, a member of the ruling family.

The cabinet's popular decision to give women the right to vote, taken in the absence of a parliament, seems to confirm both arguments.

While the opposition see it as a deliberate plot to make the government seem more popular, a source close to the cabinet points out that issues of great national weight, such as giving the vote to women, would have been delayed by endless squabbles and discussion in parliament.

Most MPs are prepared to stand again and the campaign for re-election is underway. It is the first campaign ever to take place in the unforgiving harsh Kuwaiti summer. Now voters and candidates will have to stick around for the municipal elections in June and the parliamentary elections 23 days later.

The majority of Kuwaiti families leave for Europe, Egypt, North Africa and Lebanon to escape the unbearable heat, at home the temperatures often top 125F in the shade.

Although some Kuwaitis are sceptical and suspicious, some see the incident as a chance to end a long paralysis between parliament and government. The lack of cooperation between ministers and parliamentarians, say critics, has resulted in a weak government and a weak parliament.

Last month's debacle was a typical example of what has taken place in recent years when parliament put weighty decisions on hold in order to grill ministers over alleged misdemeanours on Islamic and other matters.

While the opposition argues that in democracy there is a need for checks and balances to prevent government ministers dipping their fingers in the till or squandering public money on buying overpriced foreign weapons, the government, not without justification, argues that precious time has been wasted by members of parliament holding up much-needed economic reforms.

Just one year after Kuwait's liberation from Iraqi occupation, Islamist MPs spent huge amounts of time and effort trying to introduce legislation, similar to that in Saudi Arabia, to have Kuwaiti women banned from driving cars and motor vehicles on the country's roads and highways.

Last year they wasted further valuable time arguing about the contents Islamic text books and the dangers of allowing mixed classes of students. There is a fine line between debate and obstruction.

Meanwhile Kuwait's budget deficit has ballooned to more than $6 billion, alerting Kuwaiti citizens of both sexes to the fact they may soon lose the comforts provided by an impressive welfare state.

The majority of Kuwaitis are aware their government is subjected to pressure from conservative states in the Gulf not to let too much democracy infect their parliament-free region.

Further down the coast, Kuwait's experience with democracy is providing anti-democrats with comforting fodder.

The Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel - owned by Qatari foreign minister - went to town with the coverage of the latest crisis. Its widely watched nightly news debate programme, which daringly tackles issues no other Arab television stations normally - providing they are not Qatari issues - gave generous coverage the suspension of the Kuwaiti parliament, during which time ardent Kuwaiti government critic Dr Abdullah Al-Nafisi spent a full 15 minute lambasting the government for the suspension, claiming the act showed a lack of genuine commitment to democracy.

Other government-owned stations in Abu Dhabi and Dubai also led with news of the suspension.

Saudi Arabia's press has been outspoken in warning Kuwaitis not to be deceived by the trappings and the false shine of democracy.

Once again the well-worn excuse for autocracy, that democracy does not make for good government, has been dusted off by some of those in the Gulf who are less than liberal. Look at Kuwait, they say, see how the trappings of democracy can easily lead to chaos.

Most Kuwaiti intellectuals believe that this hiccup is only a mild setback in their ongoing struggle to form and establish a democratic trend in the region. The Emir will run the country by decrees until 3 July, they say, but the parliament will be back and has the right to amend or change decrees issued in its absence.

"Both the government and the ruling family," wrote one Kuwaiti commentator on the Internet last month, "have learned they cannot suspend parliament indefinitely as they have done twice in the past."

The issue of votes for women, said one Kuwait feminist, will no doubt become an election issue, although women will not vote in this coming election. She believes the attitude of male candidates will be tested during the campaign. However, the final result might very well increase the number of the liberal and progressive deputies at the expense of the conservatives in the next parliament, she observed.


"Finally!" shouted Massouma Al-Mubarak in elation. "It is a great feeling to get something that you have been deprived of for a long time." Ms Al-Mubarak is one of a handful of outspoken women's rights activists who have been calling for equal political rights for Kuwaiti women for a long time.

Kuwait's cabinet on 16 May issued a decree, endorsed by the Emir Sheikh Jaber, to give women the right to vote and run for parliament.

"Today should be an historic day for the democratic reform and democracy for Kuwait and the whole of the Gulf region," said Ghanem Alnajjar of the University of Kuwait in an email distributed on the Internet.

This decision, said Mr Alnajjar, would end the longest debate within Kuwaiti politics since 1961 about the rights of women.

The decision will not be implemented in time to take effect in the parliamentary elections due on 3 July, and will not mae the electoral system fully democratic - since there are many strata of the population who do not have an automatic right to vote. "nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction tat will put Kuwait ahead of the others in the region," said another message on the Internet from a Kuwaiti female teacher.

The Kuwaiti cabinet's move was unexpected, since neither the media, nor recent debates in the parliament appeared to be regarding women's political rights as a priority.

"Most women appeared to accept the view that politics was a male-only domain," one Western diplomat said, "and many lawmakers wanted it to stay that way."

"We are a conservative society, and when a man votes he represents his whole family," said Ahmed Baqer, a member of the disbanded parliament. Mr Baqer, who was commenting on the cabinet's decision, said "enfranchising women was unconstitutional".

Conservative members like Mr Baqer are expected to review the decree within 14 days of starting the next parliament in accordance with article 71 of the Kuwaiti constitution. Conservatives will need a two thirds majority to veto a law that was passed by the Emir in parliament's absence. But it is unlikely, in the current euphoria generated by women and liberals to gain any such majority against the decree.

The official Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) quoted Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah as saying that he was certain that delegates in the newly elected Parliament "will not deny their sisters the right to practise their political rights".

Kuwaiti women have in the past held appointed senior government positions. Following the liberation of Kuwait by an American-led international alliance in 1991, the Emir Sheikh Jaber promised to give women more political right in appreciation of their role during the seven-month Iraqi occupation. Several women were killed while working with the underground resistance or in demonstrations against Iraqi occupiers.

The development of democratic processes in Kuwait has always been shadowed by paradoxes. Women have enjoyed full educational opportunities since the 1940s, yet were denied political rights. Today, Kuwaiti women, along with their Bahraini sisters are among the most educated in the Gulf region and many hold powerful and high ranking positions.

In the 1980s Kuwait University had five women deans out of a total of the university's nine colleges. The University's current rector is a women.

Kuwait is the only Gulf nation with an elected parliament. Qatar allows women to vote, but the only vote that Qatar ever witnessed was for a council with only advisory powers, mainly on municipal matters. Oman's consultative council, chosen in 1991, has two women members, but the body is indirectly elected.
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Title Annotation:Kuwait politics and government; includes related article on the granting of the right to vote to Kuwaiti women; Current Affairs
Comment:The decision by Kuwait's Emir, Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah, to suspend the country's National Assembly on May 3, 1999, is being used as another argument against democracy in the Middle East.
Author:Darwish, Adel
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7KUWA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
Previous Article:On the threshold of the 7th millenium.
Next Article:Israel's dilemma.

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