- Last Updated: 2:21 AM, January 28, 2012
- Posted: 11:13 PM, January 27, 2012
A year into the Arab Spring, the forces that provoked revolutions across the Middle East are competing for power in a country not directly affected by the upheavals.
The fight, on miniature scale, concerns around 400,000 voters in Kuwait, the oil-rich emirate sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Elections for a National Assembly will be held Feb. 2, with 286 candidates contesting 50 seats. The result could impact the emerging political landscape across the region.
Kuwait became the first Arab country to hold competitive elections in the 1960s. With its relatively free media, the country has also been a sounding board for ideas that have shaped Arab politics for the last half a century.
And it has been the United States’ key military ally in the Persian Gulf since the US-led coalition helped liberate it from Iraqi occupation in 1991. Its cooperation is crucial for Washington’s efforts to stabilize Iraq and frustrate Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.
What are the most interesting features of the current campaign?
The first is consensus on the need to continue the US alliance. Many Kuwaitis fear that Iraq, even under its new democratic regime, may not have abandoned the old dream of annexing Kuwait. Others worry about Iranian influence via the Shiite minority, and a few fret at the possible spread of Saudi “reactionary” traditions to their nation. To counter all that, many Kuwaitis look to the United States as the guarantor of their independence and political pluralism.
A second point of consensus concerns the rules of the political game: While all candidates promise reform, none demands regime change.
A section of Kuwaiti society still hesitates between the politics of the street and parliamentary politics. In fact, this election was caused when the emir, Sheik Sabah Al-Ahmad, dissolved parliament after some members tried to storm the prime minister’s office at the head of a street crowd.
Some candidates’ campaigning reflects this hesitation between street and parliamentary politics. They organize soap-box meetings, wave clenched fists and make themselves hoarse by shouting. They use the old vocabulary of street politics, emphasizing abstract concepts and vague promises. They reinforce their “street” persona by wearing traditional tribal costumes and headgear — and sometimes substantial “Islamic” beards.
In contrast, other candidates have learned how to use the modern media, especially TV. They dress in camera-friendly styles, speak as if in a private conversation and raise bread-and-butter issues. They use a political vocabulary new for Arabs, emphasizing concepts such as transparency and good governance.
Although only 23 women were allowed to stand as candidates, the campaign has an unprecedented feminine accent. The old parliament had just one woman member; now women hope to win at least five seats.
And women have organized some of the largest campaign rallies. Determined not to be pushed to the margins, women in Islamic hijab have been canvassing alongside their sisters in Western-style dresses.
Quite surprising is the near-total disappearance of pan-Arab nationalism as a political aim. The old dream of Arab unity that once mobilized the crowds has been consigned to oblivion.
An even bigger surprise is the failure of Islamist candidates to set the tone of the campaign. Divided across Shiite-Sunni lines, such candidates have failed to offer a coherent discourse. They’ll be lucky to match the 20 percent of the vote they collected last time.
Two issues have dominated the campaign. One is the growing support for progress toward constitutional monarchy. The present system is a mixture of British-style parliamentary government and a presidential one in which the emir has the final word. Some believe their nation is now ready to extend the parliament’s power by allowing it to appoint the prime minister and his or her Cabinet.
Another issue concerns some 200,000 people caught in a legal limbo. Known as bedoun, or “those without” Kuwaiti or foreign nationality, they have mostly been born in and lived in Kuwait for generations. The British failed to settle the status of the bedoun before rolling down the Union Jack in 1960, and successive Kuwaiti governments tried to hide the problem. The last government, under reformist Prime Minister Sheik Nasser bin Muhammad, acknowledged the problem with a plan to legalize the status of 63,000 bedoun within five years.
Kuwait has always been a good barometer for the Arab political climate; a year after the Arab Spring, more eyes than ever are watching the barometer.Follow @NYPostOpinion