Prior to 2009, Islamists in Kuwait generally were not regarded as an opposition force to the government. In fact, many Kuwaitis believed that former Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah sided with the Islamists in the eighties and the nineties against leftists and liberals. But in the past two years, the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait has changed significantly. Its political organization, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (or Hadas, its Arabic acronym) has played a prominent role in rallying against Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed Al Sabah—a liberal-leaning member of the ruling family with extensive diplomatic experience but accused of corruption since his first appointment in February 2006. Nasser al-Mohammed finally resigned from office on November 29 and has since been replaced by Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad Al Sabah, his former defense minister.
The ousting of al-Mohammed is a rare event in Kuwaiti history. He has resigned previously seven times and only now, after his eighth resignation, has he been replaced by al-Mubarak. Prior to 2006, MPs refrained from confrontation with the prime minister, as he was also crown prince (and thus, the future emir). When the office of prime minister was separated from the title of crown prince, the prime minister lost the emir’s prerogative of immunity and became subject to parliamentary inquiry. The resulting stalemate has left Kuwait’s cabinet of ministers in a deadlock: as parliament submitted requests to question the cabinet, the emir reactively dissolved parliament, resulting in three separate dissolutions between 2006 and 2009. The cabinet also resigned seven times in efforts to escape parliamentary inquiry.
In the midst of large parliamentary opposition to Nasser al-Mohammed, Hadas was initially not very vocal. The critical turning point came in 2009 during development of “the fourth oil refinery project”—a contract worth $15 billion that would eventually replace the aging Shuaiba plant and expand national oil production. MPs cited illegal procedural mistakes in its approval and threatened to grill the oil minister, Mohammed al-Olaim—a Hadas party member—for lack of transparency. After receiving the Audit Bureau report which stated that the Kuwait National Petroleum Company (KNPC) did not adhere to the committee regulations, Prime Minister al-Mohammed postponed the project indefinitely. Hadas felt betrayed (having backed al-Olaim) and in reaction, placed a request to grill the prime minister himself—accusing him of squandering public funds in personal expenses and stalling development plans for the project. The arguments they presented were poorly sustained and damaged their own credibility. Their countermove was generally perceived as an unprincipled reaction against the prime minister’s withdrawal of support for a Hadas member. This contributed to Hadas’s defeat in the following May 2009 elections. Only two members of Hadas won seats—and mainly due to tribal connections: Jimaan al-Hirbish (who belongs to the Eniza tribe) and Falah al-Sawagh (of the Awazm). In 2006, the party had 6 seats in total.
Since the oil refinery confrontation, the party has focused on regaining popularity. Al-Hirbish and al-Sawagh have forged alliances with other MPs, throwing their cards in with the Popular Action Bloc—led by former head-of-parliament Ahmed al-Saadon and the popular frontman Musalam al-Barrak. Beyond their stance against al-Mohammed, Hadas and the Popular Action Bloc do not share political agendas.
Hadas has also claimed credit for galvanizing opposition outside of parliament. The calls for al-Mohammed’s departure rose to a new level on December 8, 2010 when riot police dispersed a political gathering in the house of Hadas’s al-Harbish. One of the attendees, a professor of constitutional law at Kuwait University, Obaid al-Wasmi, was brutally beaten and later detained for “insulting and resisting security officers” and “inciting political unrest.” The incident proved enough to catalyze the opposition into demanding the prime minister’s resignation. The protests and grilling requests kept coming in response to this incident and last March more people showed up for a rally against al-Mohammed.
Later, when Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak was announced as prime minister following al-Mohammed’s resignation, not only did Hadas immediately offer its congratulations, but it claimed credit for the turnover. Last week, MPs and political figures gathered in al-Hirbish’s house again for the one-year anniversary of the famous December 8 incident as a reminder that the successful movement against al-Mohammed started from the house of a Hadas MP.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hadas has called for parliament to be dissolved on the basis that it must be rid of al-Mohammed’s “bribed MPs.” Al-Hirbish, now the main figure of Hadas, led those calls in press releases in the past months alongside Mohammed al-Dalal, the Hadas spokesman candidate in the coming parliamentary elections. This is a clear attempt to use al-Mohammed’s exit and the party’s revamped image as an opportunity to bolster their numbers in the upcoming February 4 elections, and one that may succeed.
On the other hand, liberals are expected to lose seats, as Hadas and the Popular Action Bloc have attacked them for being passive towards the prime minister. Although the liberal Kuwait Nationalist Bloc took a clear stance against al-Mohammed and voted against him in the no-confidence vote last January, it failed to organize public protests. Rather than form their own campaigns and call for public support in the last days of al-Mohammed, liberals piggybacked off other opposition movements. And they denounced the storming incident of the parliament saying it is illegal to break in a public property. Their popular base has interpreted these moves as a sign of weakness and hesitation.
A Muslim Brotherhood comeback will not be as major as in Egypt—since Hadas has never won more than six (out of 50) seats in a single parliament. But it will significantly alter alliances in the legislature and how these might be used (or abused) to serve the opposition. For one, pro-government independent MPs might not get re-elected as several of them were summoned for interrogation for allegedly receiving bribes from al-Mohammed. This may create more opportunities for Islamists and the Action Bloc to win more seats and unite to form a coalitional majority. Those who will definitely not ally with Hadas and the opposition bloc in general will be the Shi‘a MPs who were close to al-Mohammed and the independent MPs—who are mainly passive members focused on repaying services to their voters by siding with the government when needed.
It is not yet clear what the new era of Prime Minister al-Mubarak will bring. His new cabinet retains all former ministers except for three who had previously resigned in protest against the ongoing political tension. Regardless, it is significant that al-Mohammed was finally replaced and that the emir has sought to end the tense deadlock.a
* Published in Carnegie's Sada Journal