What started as a dispute over voting rules in Kuwait has mushroomed into a debate about the balance of power between the emir and parliament.
Thousands of Kuwaitis have regularly taken to the streets since late October to protest at Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah’s decision to amend the electoral law before a parliamentary election on Dec. 1.
But in a conscious echo of slogans used in other parts of the Arab world, some demonstrators at an opposition-led rally on Nov. 11 chanted “The people want to bring down the decree!”
The 83-year-old emir has said his emergency decree to reduce the number of votes per citizen to one from four will streamline the electoral system and help preserve national unity.
Opposition groups say the changes will skew the vote in favor of candidates close to the government, which is run by a prime minister appointed by Sheikh Sabah and whose top posts are filled by members of the ruling family.
“We are seeing the emergence of a very vibrant, assertive and dynamic civil society that is seeking a transformation in the power relations and structure of the state,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University.
“It is going as far as (demanding) a constitutional, parliamentary monarchy. It is not a revolutionary movement, it is a grassroots civil reform movement.”
General public dissatisfaction over corruption and lagging, uneven development has been coupled with a more assertive opposition bloc, made up of Islamist, tribal and liberal politicians, keen to protect their own interests, said Mohammed al-Mokatea, a constitutional expert at Kuwait University.
“They are perhaps getting the feeling that they are going to be isolated from political life,” he said, referring to the period after the elections, which the opposition is boycotting.
Kuwait, with a population of 3.7 million, boasts the most open political system in the Gulf. Parliament has legislative powers and the right to summon ministers for questioning.
However, the emir has the final say in state affairs, can veto laws and dissolve parliament.
While protests have swelled to tens of thousands of people, with some broken up by police using tear gas, they are generally smaller than some of the largest demonstrations over corruption late in 2011 which led to the resignation of the cabinet.
Last year the opposition and protest groups were able to unify around the corruption theme, putting real pressure on the government and ousting the prime minister, a nephew of the emir.
This time around, an increasingly organized youth wing has reemerged in the opposition movement, voicing frustration at the focus on the electoral law and saying there are broader problems to tackle.
The emir’s recent meetings with opposition figures suggest he may be looking at ways to offer a compromise after the elections, analysts said.
Protesters restricted their last rally to a square near parliament, reducing tension with the police.
Some demands include allowing a proportion of cabinet posts to be held by the opposition, or the chance to question ministers without the threat of dissolution of parliament.