Internal Tension Simmers in Kuwait as Islamic Politicians Clash With Pro-Westerner Liberals
On the surface, Kuwait looks no different from the way it did a year ago. Its American-style malls are still bustling, its dreary boulevards still teeming with luxury cars and jewelry-laden women. It still projects an image as one of the most stable, pro-Western countries in the region, and Kuwaitis still take the time to express gratitude for the America expulsion of Saddam Hussein's occupying army in 1991.
About the only hint of the crisis overtaking this country of one million citizens and as many foreign workers are the concrete barriers being installed around official buildings and the police officers' bulletproof vests and heavy weapons. But talk to Kuwaitis these days, and the first topic they are likely to bring up is the threat of terrorism.
Since mid-January, a series of gun battles and confrontations between Kuwaiti security forces and people believed to be Islamic militants has shaken this tiny city-state that is slightly smaller than New Jersey. (esetch, can you verify this?)
Long focused on threats from outside, and with the emotional and physical wounds of the Iraqi invasion still raw, Kuwaitis have in recent weeks grappled with a new threat from within. In the process, long-concealed tensions between Islamic politicians and pro-Western liberals have burst into the open.
"This was the first time that a Kuwaiti killed another Kuwaiti for political reasons," Saad bin Tefla, a liberal commentator, said of the series of firefights. "No election, no political or public event has ever been marred by blood in the modern history of this country."
Kuwait's crisis began Jan. 10 when the police, acting on a tip from United States Embassy officials, uncovered what they said was cell of Al Qaeda that was planning to bomb American troops and various sites throughout the country. On Jan. 30, as Iraq went to the polls, Kuwaiti police officers seeking to arrest militants raided a suburban house, killing five people, including a policeman and a passer-by.
The next day, Kuwaiti forces waged a nine-hour gun battle against fighters suspected of being militants in the capital in another raid, killing four and capturing six, including Amer al-Enezi, who was accused of being their leader. Mr. Enezi died in custody several days later of a "collapse in blood circulation," the police said. All told, three security officers and nine people suspected of being militants have been killed, among them two Saudis.
"We have never seen anything like this before," said one Kuwaiti Interior Ministry official.
Events here mirror those in neighboring Saudi Arabia over the past two years, where about 100 Westerners, Saudis and others have been killed. Much like Saudi Arabia, say Kuwaiti liberals, the Kuwaiti government nurtured Islamic movements and allowed a firebrand style of Islam to pervade in the country's schools and mosques. Walid al Nasif, editor of the prominent Kuwaiti newspaper, Al Qabas, says Kuwait has become a major fund-raising center for Islamic charities.
"This is where their bank accounts are," Mr. Nasif said. "They have money and they are organized."
But unlike their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Kuwaiti militants have not been able to carry out any bombings - only the sporadic shootings that occurred just before the invasion of Iraq. Small and close knit, Kuwait has proven less fertile ground for the militants than has Saudi Arabia, Interior Ministry officials said.
Yet analysts say the crisis caught the government off guard at a critical moment. With the emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, ailing and his 73-year-old crown prince and heir, Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, also suffering health problems, the royal family has been rife with questions of succession. In 2001, Sheik Jaber had a brain hemorrhage, from which he is said to have recovered, but the emir has fallen from public sight and has stopped attending most official functions. Many duties are now left to his half-brother who is also the prime minister, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah.
"There's a power vacuum and people in the press and in Parliament feel it," said Ahmad Bishara, leader of the National Democratic Movement, a liberal party. "You have a disabled leadership and a prime minister who's the de facto ruler but with little experience in internal politics."
With both sides trying to enter the void, the violence has been a stern warning of the power Islamists have in Kuwait, liberals say. Islamists in Parliament and in ministries, though not directly connected to the militants, are culpable for cultivating an environment in which militancy could grow, they contend.
Liberals like Mr. bin Tefla are demanding that the government pass new laws or enforce existing ones to curb Islamist power and buttress secularism. For example, Mr. bin Tefla points to an old law banning Kuwaiti women who cover their faces from driving. It is now being enforced, but just barely: the police can now request covered women to show their faces during traffic stops.
A law calling for the closing of "unauthorized" charities, he said, has not been enforced; the government has politely requested that charities open their books, and about 125 charities are not even registered. Some constitutional requirements, like one about organization of political parties, have never been translated into specific rules, he said.
Mansour al-Khuzam, deputy secretary a new Islamist-dominated party called the Ummah Party, sees the issue differently. He attributes the violence to a fundamental inequity and injustice in the society, encouraged by vested interests. Despite the seeming democracy of Kuwait's Parliament, he said, people are largely voiceless and need greater freedom to express themselves and determine their leadership.
"We have to deal with the problem itself, not its symptoms," he said. "These problems are emanating from places where there is fundamental injustice." Mr. Khuzam and his cohorts unveiled their party on Jan. 29, billing themselves as the first real political party in the Persian Gulf region. Their platform is decidedly simple - freedom, justice and balance.
"We are an opposition party; we offer an alternative view," Mr. Khuzam said. "The winds of change are moving throughout the region, and some are learning to take advantage of the change."
The party, whose members are former members of an Islamic movement, supports Shariah, or Koranic law, as the sole basis of legislation for the state and says that the will of the people is the sole source authority for the government. Just days after the party was announced, the authorities questioned 10 members, including Mr. Khuzam.
The government's answer to the tensions has been to strengthen security. New laws rushed through Parliament make it easier for the police to obtain a warrant to search a private house for illegal weapons. Inspectors who are women can now search women's quarters in private homes, and the government has begun closing unlicensed mosques and deleting text encouraging intolerance from schoolbooks. An effort to block or close Web sites encouraging intolerance is also in the offing, and newspapers have been warned not to publish details of security activities.
Mr. bin Tefla says democracy has brought Kuwait this far, but it is now sputtering. "Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, we were a democracy compared to everybody else in the region," he said. "But now we are at a standstill and we don't seem to be moving forward." Despite their differences, Mr. Khuzam may well agree with him.