Energy-rich Kuwait has been politically charged over the past two weeks over the sentencing of an opposition leader for insulting the emir.
Opposition supporters clashed with police on the streets as Mussallam al-Barrak evaded arrest despite a hunt launched for him by the security forces.
A semblance of calm has now returned after Barrak, one of the country's most prominent politicians, was released on bail by a court, pending a final verdict on his five-year sentence for insulting the emir in a speech last year. But the noisy protests together with stun grenades that police repeatedly fired to disperse demonstrators served loud reminders to the turmoil that the state has slipped into over the past few years.
Kuwait has been grappling with a political impasse for some time now. Last year's dissolution of the parliament by the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, subsequent elections under controversial new electoral laws, and the legal troubles for Barrak have worsened the political stand-off.
The opposition says the constitution is being undermined by a ruler performing a "one-man show upheld by a clueless government". They cite several instances when the elected parliament was dissolved in the past by the ruler.
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“I have never insulted the emir; however, it is my right to address him as the ruler of Kuwait,” said Barrak in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera. “The case against me and my conviction is an attempt to derail the process of reform.”
Barrak, who had agreed to turn himself in on condition of receiving an official warrant for his arrest, accused the government of dealing with issues “outside the framework of the system in place”, saying the judge who sentenced him was hand-picked, instead of being chosen as per an automated system. Members of the opposition said they believe the “unusual” court proceedings were orchestrated to send Barrak to jail.
Kuwait’s Ministry of Information defended the ruling in a statement to Al Jazeera, saying the country has a “transparent and independent judicial system” guaranteeing a fair trial with a “comprehensive legal defence and open appeals process” to anyone accused of a crime.
At its heart, the dispute is over allegations of government corruption and how much sway the monarchy should retain.
Dissent increased last year over amendments to electoral laws. The opposition says the legal changes were designed to prevent them from winning a parliamentary majority.
The emir ordered new parliamentary elections in December, but the opposition boycotted the vote, objecting to changes in the voting system.
Political movements in Kuwait are made based on alliances, as political parties are illegal. Violent street protests followed the election boycott.
'Who blinks first'
“The government is pushing things into confrontation and the opposition is using larger and larger voices,” Ibrahim Alhadban, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, told Al Jazeera. Both parties hold some responsibility for the current confrontation, he said, likening it to two “people staring at one another and [seeing] who blinks first”.
Unlike political protests to sweep other Arab countries in recent years, Kuwait’s opposition says it wants reform, not revolution.
“We are not calling for any radical or revolutionary demands - we don’t have the goal to lead a revolution - we have the goal of civil changes," Mohammad Almatar, the head of the international relations office of the opposition coalition, told Al Jazeera.
It means nothing if I am sent to jail, because even if they imprison our bodies, our thoughts and beliefs can never be imprisoned.
The opposition's list of grievances is long and diverse - ranging from lack of media freedom to an alleged slush fund controlled by the government that they believe to be "larger than the salary of the whole nation", in Almatar's words.
Kuwaitis used to “brag about their media freedoms as being on the greatest in the region”, said Alhadban, but opposition activists say the heavy-handed approach adopted by the security forces is an example of how freedom of expression in Kuwait is being swiftly curtailed.
The parliament recently approved a new media bill, despite criticism from international media watchdog groups, proposing that any dissenting remarks made against the state could be a punishable offence leading to a jail term of up to 10 years and a fine of up to $1m.
Kuwait has also jailed a number of Twitter users and at least ten members of the opposition, under an existing law that sentences those convicted of offending the government to up to five years in prison.
To remedy the situation, the opposition is seeking the country's transition from an "absolute monarchy" to a constitutional monarchy with a full parliamentary system in place, and insists this is necessary to take Kuwait forward.
With the opposition demands becoming strident, a quick resolution to the stand-off looks unlikely. The government has said it is open to discussions, but feels there is little scope for a "healthy dialogue".
“[Barrak] just keeps giving excuses for no reason, keeps erupting issues, saying that 'we are deprived'. Of what?” Safa Alhashem, a member of the Kuwaiti parliament, told Al Jazeera. She added that the opposition does not provide details or evidence of its allegations, and that its demands are not clear.
In absence of any common ground, Kuwait could be in for a prolonged spell of political uncertainty. For the time being, protests have largely subsided. But with differences festering, many feel it is only a matter of time before the protesters return.
Some Kuwaiti media figures have publicly expressed doubts over the opposition's goals and whether Barrak has the country's interests at heart. Barrak, however, told Al Jazeera that the movement for reform “is not based on individuals”.
“I am just a part of this movement. It means nothing if I am sent to jail, because even if they imprison our bodies, our thoughts and beliefs can never be imprisoned.”
Al Jazeera's Jamal Elshayyal contributed to this report from Kuwait City.
Follow Rahul Radhakrishnan on Twitter: @RahulRadhakris
Source: Al Jazeera