Storming Kuwait’s Parliament: What’s Behind the Latest Arab Revolt

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Kuwaitis demonstrate inside the Abdullah al-Salem hall at Kuwait's National Assembly in Kuwait City on November 16, 2011. (Photo: Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP / Getty Images)

The worldwide spread of protests this year may have started with the Arab spring, but when Kuwaiti demonstrators stormed their parliament on Wednesday, they appeared to be taking a page from the more theatric elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The protestors’ raid was brief. They called for the fall of the Prime Minister, sang the national anthem, and left after a few moments. Riot police beat several demonstrators as they subsequently attempted a charge on the Prime Minister’s residence.  If the flash-mob-like action left some parliamentarians stunned, it perplexed many Kuwaitis, who are still parsing the symbolism, and who fear that it may presage a violent evolution in national politics. “Things are taking a dangerous turn,” says Ebthal al-Khateeb, a professor of English Literature at Kuwait University, speaking over the phone. “We have a constitution, and it should have saved us from these kind of clashes. Instead both the government and the opposition are using unconstitutional means to get their way.”

Kuwait has been largely spared the upheavals of the Arab Spring, but a recent corruption scandal in Parliament has roiled the nation. When Kuwait’s Central Bank reported that unnamed government officials had transferred millions of dollars to accounts out of the country, opposition lawmakers demanded an investigation and to question Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah. Al Sabah, who is a member of the ruling family appointed by the Emir, has so far refused, and pro-government parliamentarians have repeatedly voted down opposition requests for questioning.

Kuwait’s parliament is one of the most politically active in the region, and it’s not uncommon to see opposition members openly criticize the royal family. Many Kuwaitis feel that parliamentary elections are routinely rigged in favor of candidates who support the ruling family, but that doesn’t mean that the opposition is a paragon of virtuous government, says al-Khateeb, who is also a human rights activist. “The opposition isn’t much better. They are also known for corruption, and there are many conservatives who are opposed to basic freedoms and human rights.”

Overall dissatisfaction with the parliament may have led to last night’s storming of the parliament, she says, but until more is known, it’s also possible that the protestors were egged on by members of the opposition as a way to bolster their stance. That would mark a new low in Kuwaiti politics, one that al-Khateeb fears could bring more problems than solutions. “There are constitutional ways to take down the Prime Minister, ways to solve our problems. But instead people are taking to the streets. If people do not resort to logic and to our civil concepts and principals things could escalate,” she warns. “We do want this government to go with all our hearts, but we have to make sure we are moving into a modern direction.”

Kuwait has survived worse political storms in the past, and the Prime Minster has weathered several calls for a no-confidence vote, but the protests, combined with a series of strikes that closed down the national airline and threatened to disrupt oil and gas shipments out of the Gulf, underscore the fragility of the region just as the United States considers basing thousands more soldiers in Kuwait in the wake of the Iraq drawdown. Dwarfed by neighboring giants Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, Kuwait has every reason to maintain friendly relations with the U.S., no matter who is in power.

Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University in Lebanon who covers the Middle East, doesn’t expect the situation to get out of control. As a rich nation with a small population, Kuwait is likely to remain stable, he says, barring external interventions. “In Kuwait the main challenge is not the people versus the government, but the people versus the people. Existing sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni could be manipulated, but that is dangerous anywhere.”

Al-Khateeb too believes that calmer heads will prevail. “I have faith that things will come back to balance,” she says. “Kuwaitis are rooted in democracy, and they have faith in the constitution it will lead us out of the problem. It is the one document that all Kuwaitis agree on.”

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.