Democracy remains elusive in 'liberated' sheikdom WAR IN THE GULF


KUWAIT CITY -- Hamad al-Joon, a 43-year-old lawyer who has called for democracy to replace the strong rule of Kuwait's royal family, answered his door last week and was shot in the chest by a gunman.

Fellow members of the political opposition took it as a bad sign.

As the Iraqi soldiers fled Kuwait, Mr. Joon and others hoped the void would be filled by democracy. Western observers predicted that the timing was good: The helping hand by allied armies would compel the ruling al-Sabah family to take at least some steps toward popular rule.

But opposition leaders say just the reverse is happening. Martial law declared by the al-Sabah family from their haven in Saudi Arabia has gotten tighter every day, with new restrictions on the movements of anyone whose loyalty is suspect.

"We believe the martial law . . . is the first step to clear out political opposition," Khalid al-Wasmi, a university professor and member of the opposition, said outside Mr. Joon's intensive-care hospital room. "We have no reason to trust the government."

In the days after the liberation of Kuwait City, the government has increased checkpoints to monitor identity papers, and has clamped on a nightly curfew. It has tightened restrictions on reporters, placed some areas of the city off-limits, and discouraged opposition members like Mr. Wasmi from talking to reporters.

A year after Kuwait gained independence from the British in 1961, it adopted a constitution that both recognized the ruling al-Sabah familyand established a Parliament with guaranteed freedoms of religion, speech, press and human rights.

The democratic part of the document has been honored more in the breach. The Parliament has been dissolved whenever the family declared an overriding need. It last met in 1985.

There is no free press or free speech, nor is there an independent judicial system. When Parliament was permitted, only literate Kuwaiti men whose families had been here since 1920 could vote. Women and ethnic groups who make up three-fourths of the population had no vote and few rights.

Last October in Saudi Arabia, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the country's ruling emir, acknowledged the democratic requirements of the constitution. Yesterday in Kuwait City, Crown Prince Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah repeated the vague promise of democracy in response to a question at his first news conference since returning to Kuwait.

"I would like everyone to hear this reiteration, especially those trying to raise doubts and circulate rumors and vicious hearsay," the crown prince said.

But he added that "we will not hesitate" to extend the three-month martial law if the family believes it is needed. He would not set a date for a parliamentary election because, he said, it "is dependent on a number of issues, most important the establishment of law and order."

He strongly defended the role of the ruling family and said such issues as suffrage for women must be studied.

A few hours before he spoke, a small group of men gathered in the home of an opposition leader for a "diwaniya." Sitting cross-legged with sweet tea on the carpet of an empty room, the opposition members said this traditional daily social gathering had become the focus of a rising call for democracy in the days before the Iraqi invasion.

Abdul al-Farhan, 47, a businessman and the host of the meeting, is pessimistic the movement will be allowed to rise again. He was placed in jail for four days by the government before the invasion.

"A stone is still a stone. There is no indication they are changing," Mr. Farhan said of the governing family.

"We have a very bad history with their promises," agreed Zuhair al-Nassar, 32, a dentist. "They use the constitution to say one thing, but then they just take over."

There are about six opposition groups, roughly organized because no formal opposition party is permitted. Most of the mainstream groups say they want to keep the al-Sabah family, though in a figurehead status such as that of the royal family of Britain.

Even Mr. Joon, the lawyer who was shot, stresses his affection for the ruling family and says he does not suspect them of being behind the attempt on his life.

"They're not stupid," he said from his hospital bed. "It's very important for many parties in this region to stop the seeds of democracy from coming to Kuwait."

There are few Arab democratic countries, and many neighboring rulers have reason to fear a spread of democracy like that which swept Eastern Europe.

While the mainstream opposition parties in Kuwait vowed to fight a peaceful struggle for democracy, not all may be satisfied with that long process.

The chaos from the Iraqi opposition and the efforts of the Kuwaiti resistance have flooded the country with arms, many of them held by young resistance fighters. Some may now resent reimposition of rule by the returning al-Sabah family.

The shooting of Mr. Joon has raised the fears of opposition leaders. At his press conference, the crown prince acknowledged rumors of "death squads" employed by his family, and he dismissed such rumors. But Mr. Farhan said "most of the opposition leaders aren't sleeping in their homes at night."

Neither is the emir, however. His failure to return to the country so far from Saudi Arabia has been explained by the government in terms of a need to ensure that there are no lingering Iraqi soldiers.

But "in my opinion, the emir is afraid of the people, not the Iraqis," said one participant at the diwaniya.

"We want to liberate Kuwait," said Khalid al-Rasheed, an opposition journalist. "But not just the land. We want to liberate the nation."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad