Kuwait awaits protests but no stranger to upheaval


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The next scheduled stop on the Arab protest tour: Kuwait. This, however, is more of a return engagement.

Calls for anti-government rallies Tuesday are an extension of nasty political skirmishes in Kuwait that were under way long before the first glint of dissent that began in Tunisia more than two months ago.

Kuwait has the Gulf's most powerful and combative parliament, and opposition lawmakers have already taken bold shots at the ruling emir's inner circle, including twice staging no-confidence motions since December 2009 that nearly brought down the prime minister. The plan now is to take the demands for a political overhaul to the streets in the style of Egypt and nearby Bahrain.

But while the tactics may be similar, it also shows that each of the Middle East's protest movements carries its own spirit.

"There's a distinct personality to each place and each protest," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "That's the challenge for policy makers trying to make sense of it all."

Libya and Yemen are all-or-nothing fights to bring down the leadership. Oman has generally cooled after an angry start — with protesters staging sit-in rallies to push for more jobs and state handouts, while being careful not to speak ill of the lute-playing sultan who has ruled for 40 years. Bahrain's protests tap into deep-rooted claims of discrimination by the majority Shiites against the Sunni monarchy.

The rumblings in Saudi Arabia — where protesters have called for a show of force Friday — seek even small breaks in the absolute control in the ruling House of Saud.

Kuwait would join the Arab protest roster with quite a bit of experience and could become another Arab hot spot.

Kuwait's opposition bloc in parliament — a mix of Islamists and anti-corruption reformists — has gone toe-to-toe for years with the hand-picked government of the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, over allegations that include financial mismanagement and attempts to roll back political freedoms. The dissident lawmakers draw heavily from the desert provinces outside Kuwait City, where many feel overlooked by the ruling dynasty and cut out of the country's oil wealth.

The most significant change this week could be adding pro-reform youth groups into the fray. At a protest strategy meeting last week, some organizers of new youth-oriented factions — including one called Kafi, or Enough, in Arabic — pledged to occupy a main square in Kuwait City to copy the round-the-clock stand by demonstrators in Bahrain's Pearl Square.

The top target for Kuwait's protesters is the prime minister, Sheik Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah, who has been accused of trying to limit political freedoms and muzzle dissenting voices.

Sheik Nasser — a nephew of the emir — narrowly survived a parliament vote in January that would have forced him to resign. Weeks earlier, he was grilled in a rare parliamentary questioning session called after security forces clashed with opposition deputies and their supporters at a December rally. The prime minister, who took office in 2006, also survived a no-confidence vote in December 2009 after allegations that public funds were misused.

The opposition is also demanding fast-track parliament elections, claiming some pro-government lawmakers won seats in 2009 through vote rigging.

There are no major calls to try to wipe out the ruling dynasty, which has held power for more than 250 years. But Bahrain's uprising also began with no direct denunciations of the king, and the anti-royal sentiment grew as the crackdowns turned deadly, including gunfire on marchers.

In Kuwait last week, security forces fired tear gas to disperse protests by the descendants of desert nomads, known as bidoon, demanding citizenship and the generous state benefits that go with it, such as free health care and public service jobs.