For Kuwait’s embattled rulers, clashes earlier this week with anti-government protesters were more than just a sign tensions may be mounting. The crowds themselves showed the widening nature of the Gulf nation’s political crisis: Stirrings of a rare alliance of convenience between liberals and Islamists against Kuwait’s Western-backed leadership.
While it’s not the first time Middle East protests have brought together political foes - Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year and Iran’s postelection unrest in 2009 had a full spectrum of voices - Kuwait’s tiny size means that the coalescence of such varied groups could make for an opposition that punches far above its own weight.
Despite the rising unrest, the ruling family appears in no imminent danger of an Arab Spring-style revolt such as Bahrain’s 20-month-old Shiite Muslim-led uprising against the Sunni monarchy.
But the emerging alliance underscores the complicated challenges for Kuwait’s ruling family as the oil-rich country moves toward Dec. 1 parliamentary elections.
Simultaneous pressure from liberals and Islamist conservatives could push Kuwait deeper into a political morass that has already disrupted the economy and raised questions about stability in one of Washington’s most critical military footholds in the region.
Kuwait’s importance to the Pentagon rose sharply after the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in December. It is now the hub for American ground forces in the Gulf, where the U.S. and its Arab allies seek to counter Iran’s military buildup.
“This is certainly not a revolution. It is a call for change and serious reform,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, political affairs professor at Kuwait University. “There is an overlapping interest in Kuwait’s many political factions despite their differences. They want balance of power in the political game.”
Islamists and their allies want power. They are pressing hard to reclaim their hold on the country’s legislature, which is the most politically empowered among the Gulf Arab states.
Meanwhile, liberals are rallying around claims the rulers are overreaching. Many have strongly objected to the government’s hard-ball political efforts over the past months that included disbanding the opposition-controlled parliament.
This has become the meeting point for the unusual joint onslaught - that could become the most broad-based challenge to Kuwait’s leadership since it was restored by the 1991 U.S.-led invasion that drove out Saddam Hussein’s forces.
“Today we unite together in fighting a bigger entity. The autocracy in Kuwait is stopping true democratic life. We must fight autocracy first,” said Lama al-Othman, a human rights activist and liberal columnist for Aljarida newspaper.
“As a liberal, my fight with the Islamist opposition is always ongoing,” she continued. “I refuse repression, I refuse it when it’s practiced by the opposition and I also refuse it when it’s practiced by the government.”
At last Sunday’s protest rally, which drew thousands of people, fully veiled women marched alongside others wearing jeans and their hair in ponytails. Men in the traditional white robes of the Gulf chanted with college-age students in t-shirts.
Riot police used tear gas and stun grenades against protesters who defied orders to limit the rally to a site in front of the parliament building. Dozens were reported injured or overcome by the gas clouds.
Kuwait’s government later ordered a ban on any public gatherings of more than 20 people, while loyalist groups issued a statement pledging support for the 83-year-old emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who has ruled since 2006.
The monarchy still has wide public support and many - even those currently siding with Islamists - would likely favor the ruling system if any serious attempts were made by Islamic conservatives to impose strict social rules such as curfews on women and sex-segregated universities.
The country’s emir controls the government payouts and generous cradle-to-grave benefits that are linchpins of the nation’s social pact. But Kuwait’s rulers are also grappling with the most politically charged landscape among Gulf Arab nations.
Parliament has wide powers and opposition lawmakers often make public charges of corruption against Cabinet members, who are mostly hand-picked by the emir. Here, political battles standout in comparison with the country’s Gulf partners such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where public dissent is rare and is quickly muzzled.
The current upheavals began in February elections, when Islamists and backers from sympathetic tribes took control of the 50-seat parliament. They quickly demanded key posts in the Cabinet and debated possible laws such as banning construction of new churches and mandating a death sentence for anyone convicted of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
The emir later disbanded the opposition-led parliament and unsuccessfully tried to challenge voting district changes that appeared to give anti-government forces an edge. For months, Kuwait was without a working parliament.
For the next election, however, the government has changed the electoral system from one permitting multiple ballots by each voter to a one-person-one-vote arrangement. Opposition groups claim this hurts them because they will not be able to form pre-election coalitions. They also say parliament should be the only venue to change voting rules.
Al-Othman, the rights activist, said the move pushed some liberals to join the Islamist-led protests.
“It’s more important for me to fight a repressive government that refused to admit that the majority of the people have voted for Islamists,” she said.
Fay al-Qassar, a 25-year-old political science graduate who favors liberal causes, said she was angered by the crackdowns on last week’s protest marchers. “I realized we have to be more proactive if we want things to get better,” she said.
Mohammed al-Dallal, a member of Kuwait’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, claimed the Islamists do not seek to bring strict Muslim codes to Kuwait. But the now-disbanded parliament pushed for laws that demanded “modest” dress for women and sought to make Islamic law the exclusive source for all future legislation.
“Our battle against autocratic rule can take years, but we will go with it,” he said.
Some liberal political leaders, meanwhile, believe anyone who broke ranks to join the Islamists will live to regret the choice.
“This is not a fight for liberty,” said Bassam al-Asoussi, a member of Kuwait’s liberal faction the Democratic Forum. “In any revolution, three things should be present: demands for equality, liberty and justice. The opposition today is against these very things.”
Eman al-Bedah, another columnist for the Aljarida newspaper, said: “I don’t think that they will clamp down the freedoms of the people. I know so. I am certain.”