Eye of the Storm: Kuwait makes history

Legitimacy in government is now dependent on the will of the people.

kuwait 88 (photo credit: )
kuwait 88
(photo credit: )
Next week, Kuwaitis will go to the polls to elect a new National Assembly which will, in turn, approve a new prime minister and cabinet. The Kuwaitis will be making history for a number of reasons. This is the first election in which women are allowed to vote, which means the size of the electorate has more than doubled. More importantly, and much to the chagrin of Islamists who insist that women are unfit to play any role in politics, a number of women are standing, often on a platform of radial social and economic reform. With a native population of one million, Kuwait is one of the smallest states that form the Arab League. Nevertheless, its general election is important for the impact it is certain to have on broader Arab politics. One reason is that the exercise will help consolidate the idea of holding elections as a means of securing access to power, something new and still fragile in most Arab states. Days before the Kuwaitis were due to go to the polls, the United Arab Emirates announced that it, too, would opt for a parliamentary system based on elections. This means all but five of the Arab states are now committed to holding reasonably clean elections at the municipal and/or national level. SOME OF this new interest in holding elections is due to the impact of Iraq on the broader Arab imagination. Many within the Arab ruling elites saw, with a mixture of admiration and terror, how Saddam Hussein's regime, regarded as the strongest of the Arab despotic structures in recent memory, collapsed within three weeks. The message was clear: An Arab regime without some mandate from the people is never more than a house of cards. Next, the Arab masses began to see millions of Iraqis queuing to cast their ballots in several municipal elections, a referendum, and two general elections, all in a couple of years. Finally, several radical Islamist movements turned to elections, as opposed to armed jihad, as a means of winning power. How sincere that conversion proves to be in the long run remains moot. What matters, however, is that groups that have always claimed that elections are nothing but a "plot hatched by Jews and Crusaders" to confuse Muslims have been forced to admit that the Arab masses, when given the chance, take to elections like ducks to water. Not all Arab elections held since the Bush Doctrine burst into the Middle East can be regarded as genuine. In some cases elections held by despotic regimes amounted to little more than a compliment that vice pays to virtue. In some countries, however - Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait and Iraq are the main examples - each election has been more credible than the one before, with prospects of further improvements in future. DISAPPOINTED by the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election and the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in last year's polls in Egypt, some commentators have expressed doubt about the wisdom of pushing for elections in the Muslim world. Their main argument is that because Arab and other Muslim masses lack a broad political culture they are likely to opt for Islamist parties that appear familiar and thus trustworthy. That argument ignores these facts: To start with, several Arab countries did have some experience of modern secular political parties until the advent of left-wing military regimes produced by a succession of coups d'etat. For much of the 1940s and part of the 1950s, avowedly Islamist movements played only a marginal role in Arab politics. In some cases the new military rulers tried to win legitimacy by seizing control of the secularist parties and, in time, transforming them into instruments of brute power. There is also the fact that radical Islamists have never managed to win a majority of votes in any Arab election so far. (Hamas collected under 44 per cent of the popular vote but won a majority in the Palestinian parliament thanks to a bizarre electoral system.) Even in Saudi Arabia, the stronghold of radical Islamism, last year's municipal elections showed there was no Islamist majority at least in the urban centers of the kingdom. PERSUADING AND, when necessary, forcing Arab states to hold elections is important for another reason. Throughout history Arab states claimed legitimacy based on divine mandate. Power belonged to God alone and was exercised by whomever He would choose as the Wali al-Amr (literally: "the vicar of the matter") at any given time. The people - that is to say, the lesser mortals - owed automatic obedience to the Wali al-Amr regardless of his deeds for as long as he did not prevent them from practicing their religion. In more recent times the new Arab regimes, built around military juntas, developed another theory of legitimacy - this time based on the myth of revolution (al-Thawrah). That theory, too, denied the lesser mortals the right to bestow or withdraw legitimacy. The holding of elections is a clear admission that the principal basis for legitimacy is the will of the people as freely expressed through ballot boxes. In well-established democracies this may sound trite; in Arab societies, it is a revolutionary idea. This is why every election held in any Arab country must be regarded as major event. The Kuwaiti election has attracted keen interest throughout the region for an additional reason. Kuwait is the only Arab state in which virtually all political sensibilities - from radical Islamist to radical secularist - are openly competing for power. And because Kuwaitis enjoy a degree of freedom of expression unknown in any other Arab state apart from the new Iraq, the election has provided an opportunity for a lively debate which, though primarily aimed at the state's half-million voters, also addresses peoples throughout the region. "For us, taking part in the elections is like getting a bite of the forbidden fruit," says one woman candidate. There are millions of people, men and women, in all Arab countries, who would also love to have a bite. The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.