KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT — It is almost midnight when dinner is served but few of those present show much appetite. The reason? They are all “liberals” and have just had their “blackest day in years.”
“How can we eat when our democracy has suffered a setback?” asks a university professor as he fondles his fourth glass of whiskey. “Kuwait may have dark days ahead.” The guests, mostly academics, businessmen, and civil servants, nod in sad agreement.
The reason for their despondency: The results of last Saturday’s general election, the third in Kuwait since liberation in 1991. The general view is that the liberals were the biggest losers. One self-styled “liberal” group lost all three of its members in the outgoing National Assembly. And the electorate ignored several other prominent, media-savvy, “liberals.”
But does this mean that Kuwait has given the thumbs down to liberal ideas? Does the first free election to be held in an Arab country after the liberation of Iraq reflect an anti-Western mood?
The short answers: No, and no.
The term “liberal” has assumed two meanings. In the American sense, liberalism means a cocktail of state intervention in the economy, a comprehensive welfare system and a good dose of political correctness — all with a bit of anti-Americanism as the cherry on top.
In its European sense, liberalism means limiting the role of the state, an emphasis on individual rights and private enterprise, and support for free trade in a global market economy.
In both senses, liberalism also means not only tolerance for but also active encouragement of alternative lifestyles, support for equal rights for all minorities (especially gays and lesbians), and a belief in the relativity of cultural and religious values.
Kuwaiti “liberals” do not believe in any of that and did not offer anything resembling a liberal social, political, and economic program.
In fact, the reason for their failure is that they were not liberal at all.
At least 20 of the 50 new members of the National Assembly are closer to the Western definition of a liberal than were most of the defeated “liberal” hopefuls.
Although there is little open and frank debate, it is possible to distinguish three currents in Kuwaiti politics.
The first represents the conservatives, tribal leaders, and wealthy merchants closely linked with at least one section of the ruling family. They believe that all that Kuwait needs to do is to maintain the status quo and stay out of regional and international trouble.
This current opposes the extension of franchise to women, supports the state’s dominant position in the economy, and favors emphasizing Kuwait’s “Arab personality.” That current appears to have won some 20 seats in the new parliament.
The second represents the so-called Islamists, who divide into several groups. The Sunni “Islamists” are divided into the supposedly moderate “Muslim Brotherhood,” which failed to win a single seat, and the more hard-line Taliban-style movement, which captured two. The Shiites, 20 percent of the electorate, chose mostly moderate politicians, rejecting hard-liners linked to the Iranian mullahs.
All in all, 21 members have been labeled as “Islamist.” But only three seek an “Islamic” system in which the sharia (theological law) would replace the constitution. On extending the franchise to women, a litmus test in Kuwaiti politics, at least half of the elected “Islamists” say they would vote in favor. (They believe women would vote for religious candidates, as they have for years in elections at universities.)
The “Islamist” current is also divided on foreign policy. At least three new members are bitterly anti-American — yet almost all others regard a U.S. alliance as necessary for Kuwait’s survival as an independent state.
The third current could be described as “reformist”: It supports massive privatization, a reduction in the state’s role in the economy and a review of the increasingly costly policy of state subsidies for almost everything. This current also wants the franchise extended to women and the voting age reduced from 21 to 18. And the “reformists” seek greater parliamentary oversight of the government, reduction in state spending, and a massive campaign against corruption.
All in all, the new parliament appears better placed to produce working majorities for a number of controversial reforms. Chief among them: the privatization program that has been on the backburner since 1992. It may also extend the franchise to women.
It is thus hard to sustain the claim that the new parliament represents a setback for Kuwaiti democracy. On the contrary, it may prove to be more supportive of a free-enterprise economy, more socially tolerant and even more pro-West.
Now let us return to the “liberals” at the dinner party.
All had made sure to leave their spouses at home, gender apartheid being the rule even for them.
Subjected to a number of questions none revealed any liberal sentiments.
Would they campaign to abolish polygamy and temporary marriages? Would they support equal rights for women in divorce and children’s custody? No.
Would they accept gay and lesbian couples as legitimate? Again: No.
What about abolishing state subsidies that eat up a third of the oil revenue? No.
Many other questions attracted the same negative answer.
The truth is that Kuwait has no “liberals” in the Western sense. Nor will Western-style liberalism win a majority in Kuwait anytime soon. What has happened is that reactionary circles have succeeded in branding some opponents as “liberal” — a foreign word that has not been translated into Arabic, sounds alien and could frighten many Kuwaitis.
A reporter asking what Kuwaitis understand by the term “liberal” will get many answers, none the right one. For most, a “liberal” means someone who wants the ban on sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages lifted — not sufficient basis for a program of government.
Maybe Kuwait does not need Western-style liberalism right now. What it certainly does need is a series of social, economic, and political reforms; without them, its long-term prospects as a nation-state shall remain in doubt.
Many of the so-called “liberals” might have done better in the election had they described themselves as reformists and their Islamist opponents as reactionaries. More importantly, the so-called “liberals” could have seized the initiative by forming a unified bloc and offering a coherent program. Had they done so, they would not have lost their appetite at their dinner parties.
— Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian journalist and author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. Taheri is available through www.benadorassociates.com.