The sentencing of popular Kuwaiti opposition leader Musallem al-Barrak on April 15 for insulting the amir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah is part of a pattern of deteriorating civil liberties in Kuwait. Although the roots of the current conflict can be traced back to a 2006 social movement whose aim was to change the election law to make electoral corruption more expensive and difficult, the two unscheduled 2012 parliamentary elections (one in February 2012 and the second in December 2012) provide a convenient starting point from which to trace the current political conflict.

The second election was so contentious that it provoked an opposition boycott. The parliament has been asked to ratify two measures, a new media law and a defense treaty among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  If approved,  these proposals have the potential to reverse Kuwait’s record of relatively free expression and tolerance of political differences.  The media law was put on hold last week in the face of opposition from Kuwaiti editors, but it is unclear whether the government plans to drop it completely or offer an amended version.  

Despite the relative obscurity of Kuwaiti politics in the United States, the Gulf is carefully watching what happens there. The degree of domestic repression of dissent that the December 2012 parliament is prepared to tolerate is one indicator to other governments in the region about how freely they can pursue their own programs for crushing dissidents. Whether the parliament is willing or not to agree to a treaty allowing for GCC intervention in cases of “unrest” will be equally telling as to whether resurgent authoritarianism can continue unmolested in the Gulf or will be checked by Kuwaitis who insist on exercising the civil rights and liberties enshrined in their constitution.

The February 2012 election took place during a period of great hostility between the regime and its opponents in and outside parliament. It returned a body dominated by the opposition, chiefly tribal members and Sunni Islamists who took their huge majority as a license to change Kuwait not only politically but also socially. Even though the constitutional court in June declared the February 2012 parliament illegal, by that time Kuwaitis were deeply divided by class, ethnicity, sect, and ideology. Formerly muffled antagonisms were exposed and heightened by a range of television-stoked accusations of corruption, fanaticism, and treason against one side or the other.  Another election was the only way to put the country back on track, but Kuwaitis were divided over the way the election should be conducted. In October, an amiri decree abruptly amended the 2006 election law (which had allowed citizens in each of Kuwait’s five electoral districts to vote for up to four members of parliament) to allow Kuwaitis only one vote each. Four days prior to the announcement of the new system Musallem al-Barrak, anticipating an attempt by the amir to change the law challenged him directly at a rally on  October 15: “We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy…We no longer fear your prisons and your riot batons.” Although news of this confrontation was barely noted outside Kuwait, inside it became grounds for arresting Musallem, leading to a conviction and a five-year prison sentence currently under appeal.  

Two days after the amended electoral law took effect thousands of unarmed Kuwaitis assembled for a rally against the new law, and were attacked by security forces with batons, stun grenades, and tear gas. Many were wounded, and some were beaten and arrested, including members of the dismissed February 2012 parliament. The opposition called for a boycott of the election, hoping both to discourage candidates and to keep enough Kuwaitis away from the polls to call the legitimacy of the results into question. Inside Kuwait, media coverage favorable to the regime dominated, ending with a splash of stories about the amir’s visit to the United Kingdom timed to coincide with the election. In contrast, newspaper coverage of boycotters speaking at meetings and demonstrators out on the streets (the latter generally referred to as rioters) was skimpy, unsympathetic, and usually relegated to inside pages, obscuring the extent of popular dissent and the heterogeneity of the protesters. The day before the election a huge demonstration that, unlike earlier ones attracted substantial international media coverage, was free of police or other violence. It drew tens of thousands into the streets, including Musallem al-Barrak and marchers shouting and carrying signs proclaiming, “We will not allow you.”

Election day dispelled some of the euphoria from the election eve march. Boycotting elections is a tactic that can backfire. For example, in Bahrain the opposition boycotted the first election held under the 2002 constitution, leaving a large segment of Bahraini society unrepresented in the first parliament. This further isolated large numbers of citizens already hurt by economic and status discrimination against Bahrain’s Shia majority. It also damaged the opposition by showing it to be self-indulgent and strategically inept. But you do not have to travel to Bahrain to find a bad example of election boycotts. In 1990, Kuwaiti opposition leaders refused to run for election to an extralegal consultative assembly which then-Amir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah proposed as a way to keep the form of a parliament without its annoying habit of opposing his will. Despite intense pressure to vote directed at the huge majority of government employees, turnout was low. The assembly that resulted had mediocre leadership, and it proved to be easily manipulated by the regime. This majlis al-watani institutionalized parliamentary corruption despite its relatively short life, trading political compliance for benefits for constituents and lavish material perks. 

A mere 39 percent of Kuwait’s electorate voted in the December 2012 parliamentary elections, a disappointment for the boycott organizers who had hoped to hold turnout down to less than 30 percent. Despite the voter boycott, the parliament is more diverse than the majlis al-watani. Kuwaiti Shia did not boycott, returning some experienced members (a few implicated in the bribery scandal that had angered voters the previous February) among the neophytes eager to make their mark (and some to claim their share of whatever spoils are going around). The new parliament quickly voted to accept the amir’s election law but, reflecting its populist roots, it also demanded payback in the form of loan forgiveness for many indebted Kuwaitis. It may yet prove to be less tractable than the amir had envisioned, however.  How Kuwait proceeds on two major legislative proposals could  make clear the kind of parliament the December election produced.

The “unified media law,” now reportedly on hold due to opposition,  was labeled “unified” due to  its application not only to newspapers and electronic media but also to books, magazines, materials published in blogs and news groups, and on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.  Twitter users, who have been a bane and a target of the amir and his allies throughout the current conflict, could be fined fantastic amounts of money—up to a million dollars—for criticizing the amir or the crown prince, whether what they say is true or not, and even for quoting them without permission. The law does not entail imprisonment for violations unless they are against religion, a feature that its supporters cite as evidence of its liberalism. The punishment for secular violations, however, from criticizing the rulers to offending members of the judiciary, instigating hatred or sectarianism, undermining national unity or (following an example already set by the United Arab Emirates) destabilizing the economy are obviously intended to inflict financial ruin on any who dare to veer from Candide’s position that all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds. There are specific penalties for other offenses, including rebelling against the ruling system, offending the constitution or the flags of Kuwait and its sister Gulf states, and divulging information from secret documents or meetings, the latter a strategy of the youth movement that succeeded in changing the electoral law in 2006. 

The Cabinet approved the bill in early April and sent it to the parliament for deliberation and voting. After the bill became public, however, it drew wide-scale criticism from supporters of civil rights and liberties in Kuwait. One newspaper, Al-Qabas, pointed out that the omission of jail time for those convicted under the new law is an illusion: “It appears that the government decided to move the battle over freedom to the court, with fines that surely will send many potential violators to jail when they fail to pay up.” Al-Jarida criticized provisions giving the Information Ministry prepublication censorship authority, a throwback to the situation prior to the Iraqi invasion, when the parliament was closed, constitutional liberties were suspended, and it was impossible to get information to the public even when that information would have contributed to public safety.  Spokesmen for the regime have since denied any intention of limiting constitutionally protected civil liberties in the Cabinet-approved measure and, in a meeting on April 24 with editors of Kuwaiti newspapers, the Prime Minister backed off from immediate consideration of the bill and said that if the editors opposed the bill, it would be “shelved.”  

A recent report by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom recommends liberalizing media laws in all the Gulf monarchies, including in Kuwait which it cited as the most liberal country in the Gulf with respect to press freedom.  Yet the government-approved unified media law would be several steps back from the current media regime governed by the 2006 media law.  Convictions and pending cases against Twitter users under that law illustrate some of its deficiencies and support recommendations that it be modified.  Yet the draconian provisions of the unified media law proposal are a chilling indicator of where the regime hopes to go with “reform” and moves the conversation on a new media regime toward rather than away from constraints on civil liberties.  

The outcry against the unified media law has focused concern on its progress through the National Assembly, but observers should not ignore the second threat to civil rights and liberties in Kuwait. That is the new GCC treaty which GCC leaders approved last May and was signed by their interior ministers in November. It will go into effect as soon as it is ratified in parliament. The security treaty reflects post-9/11 global attitudes toward potential transnational terrorism and organized crime (including in developed countries from Russia to the United States). The intense coverage of the nuclear standoff between Iran and the international community is only one element stoking security fears among Gulf populations. In consequence, proponents of the treaty hope that the misgivings that prevented Kuwaiti acceptance of an earlier version of the treaty can be overcome.  

According to Al-Jarida, “The security agreement has six chapters and twenty articles…Article II for instance stipulates that the state parties will cooperate with one another in the pursuit of outlaws or those wanted by the state parties, regardless of their nationality, and take necessary action against them.” This provision encapsulates Kuwaiti concerns that “hot pursuit” could open Kuwait to intervention by a Gulf neighbor, or that Kuwait could be forced to extradite someone wanted by another GCC member. Another article of the treaty stipulates that member states will work collectively or bilaterally to achieve the effective integration of or operational cooperation among their security services, and provide support and assistance for any state party facing unrest, even though the treaty also provides that “states parties will cooperate within the framework of this agreement in accordance with their national legislation and international obligations.” 

Misgivings about the impact of the treaty grow out of the events of the Arab Spring in the Gulf. In October 2012, the amir asserted his unilateral right to change any law when he decides that change is called for as a “matter of urgency.” This is the justification he used to change the election law. In mid-March 2012, Saudi troops and police from the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain at the request of its rulers, in response to peaceful protests against systematic discrimination against the Shia population. The GCC treaty would clothe such neighborly intervention in a legal framework that would make criticism more difficult (and probably illegal under the unified media law). The irony is that the amir and the then-prime minister had refused to send Kuwaiti military forces to participate in the intervention in Bahrain, much to the chagrin of radical Sunni Islamists in the parliament. 

Kuwait experienced nightly demonstrations against the imprisonment of Musallem al-Barrak until the court agreed that he would not have to go to jail before his appeal is heard. Security forces were reluctant to attack the large gatherings supporting Musallem, but the unrest as such is seen as responsible for a recent decline in the Kuwaiti stock market. Some Twitter users and other government critics also have been jailed although a few (including former members of parliament) have had their sentences suspended. A suspended sentence is no guarantee that the government cannot seize and imprison them at any time, however, while it limits their freedom of movement and prevents them from leaving the country.

Mary Ann Tétreault is an external contributor to the Atlantic Council. She is the Una Chapman Cox Distinguished Professor of International Affairs Emerita at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.