x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Youth group Fifth Fence calls for Kuwait government to go

Opposition politicians back youngsters planning to demonstrate against government crackdown on journalists and protesters, death in custody and delay of parliamentary sessions.

"Development cannot go on unless this government is gone," says Mussallam al Barrak, an MP.

KUWAIT CITY // In an echo of more impoverished parts of the Middle East, Kuwaitis are planning a protest in front of National Assembly for today to call for the government's resignation.

Fifth Fence, a youth group backed by opposition members of parliament, is organising the protest. The group in a statement listed its concerns as the government's crackdown on journalists and political protests, the death of a citizen in police custody and the delay of parliamentary sessions.

The Fifth Fence is "burning the candle every day" to maintain freedom, justice and equality, and it stands against chaos, government corruption and constitutional violations, the MP Falah al Sawagh said in parliament yesterday.

The group's demands match many of those made by parliament's opposition. Mussallam al Barrak, a leading government opponent, recently said in his office in the assembly: "This government cannot lead unless the prime minister resigns. I want someone else … development cannot go on unless this government is gone."

Another MP promised last week that he would soon celebrate the government's downfall. Ahmed al Sadoun said in comments reported in the local press: "The cabinet of Sheikh Nasser Mohammed [Al Sabah] is incapable of running the state.

"We will have to continue working against the prime minister and the government."

North African protesters have been motivated by the poverty and oppression experienced in their countries. Kuwait, on the other hand, is home to a welfare system that looks after its citizens from the cradle to the grave, a strong parliament and a robust press that is regularly ranked as one of the freest in the Arab world.

A political scientist at Kuwait University believes the simmering tension between the government and the opposition MPs is partially rooted in the state's benevolence.

"Our government wants to have democracy without political parties; they rely mainly on loyalty," Shamlan Alessa said. To keep their subjects on good terms, the rulers created "a gift state, a welfare state, whereby a citizen gets services and good salary without doing anything", he said, adding that "it created a national assembly that was very aggressive."

All Kuwaiti citizens will soon benefit from a 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh13,100) gift that was ordered by the emir for celebrations including national and liberation days at the end of February.

Mr Alessa compared MPs to "sharks" that primarily care about the interests of themselves and their tribes. He said Mr al Barrak, a representative of the powerful Mutairi tribe, is "the strongest man in Kuwait, because if you want wasta, favouritism, you go to Mussallam al Barrak. Nobody rejects him."

In parliament, some MPs aggressively push for benefits to be doled out to citizens, including public-sector pay rises and even official appropriation of private debt. Ministers who oppose MPs can face a parliamentary questioning.

In Kuwait's political system, any member of parliament can act alone to question any minister, including the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser.

A pro-government parliamentarian, Ali al Rashid, said: "This is my fourth parliament now and I've seen interpellations where the MP goes to the minister, tells him to do something like put his brother or friend in a job, and when the minister refuses, he questions him in parliament,

"This is abuse of power."

Mr al Rashid believes the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government has deteriorated because the opposition, especially Islamists, are fomenting chaos to ensure parliament is dissolved early.

"In the last election, they lost many seats. They think 'we could do better next time'," he said.

That malignant relationship became apparent in December when the government's special forces beat opposition MPs and their supporters at a rally against what the opposition called the executive's "unconstitutional" politicking. The prime minister was questioned over the incident in parliament later that month and narrowly survived a vote of non-co-operation.

The interpellation was the second in about 12 months for Sheikh Nasser. Several other ministers have been similarly questioned since the beginning of parliament's current session, which began in May 2009.

Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, the Kuwait research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance in the London School of Economics, said questioning ministers "deflect attention from the real business of governing.

"There is a direct and visibly measurable link between Kuwait's political paralysis and slow development in recent years, reflected in the remarkably low levels of foreign direct investment in Kuwait relative to the other GCC states," Mr Coates-Ulrichsen said.

"From being a regional first-mover with the most progressive constitutional arrangements in the 1960s, Kuwait has come to be seen as the laggard in reform and diversification."

Mr al Barrak believes the political turmoil will be solved if the prime minister resigns and a more capable leader takes the government's helm.

Mr al Rashid believes only a fundamental shift will stop the system from being abused by reckless MPs. His proposed constitutional changes would increase the number of deputies and require them to state the source of the budget when they propose laws. Legislators would need the support of four colleagues to interpellate a minister, and nine for the head of the government.

He wants to ensure when an MP questions a minister "it's not just for show - when they want to be a hero", Mr al Rashid said.

jcalderwood@thenational.ae