Diwaniyas and Democracy; Kuwait Is Caught in Contradiction

Article excerpt

Byline: Charles Rousseaux, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Kuwait City, KUWAIT - It could have been Farmington Hills, Mich. or Des Moines, Iowa, or any of the other last-minute rallies at the end of a long political campaign. The candidate, Nasser Al-Sane, had the look of the winner, as he worked the crowd that had packed his campaign tent, arms waving and (if the loose translation that I received was any indication) superlatives flying. Around him were the usual campaign flotsam and jetsam - a bright, but ill-hanging banner behind the platform concealing broken water bottle boxes, stacks of bumper stickers and colorful pamphlets on a table in front.

There were a few differences however. The men were dressed in their traditional white robes, and most of them were planning on staying for dinner. In Kuwait's constitutional monarchy, the battle for the soul of Islam is being fought in a more moderate way than elsewhere in the Arab world - at diwaniyas, traditional meetings at which Kuwaitis gather to eat and talk - rather than with suicide bombers. Think of the hard-cider and electioneering of early America, without any alcohol. There weren't any women at the diwaniya either, aside from the female member of our delegation. Even our outstanding female guide from the Kuwaiti Information Office had decided to stay away, out of "courtesy" to Mr. Al-Sane.

Mr. Al-Sane, who was re-elected to Parliament, is a central figure in the Islamist bloc, one of three informal groups fighting for power in Kuwait's constitutional monarchy. Islamists, while not necessarily opposed to Westernization (in the sense of the wealth and products it brings) are definitely opposed to liberalization. They are against granting women the franchise and government's efforts toward privatization. They support the establishment of the strict sharia law and cooler relations with the United States. Progressives, who as a result of the elections now only hold four seats in the 50-seat parliament, disagree with them on each issue. Between them is the largest bloc, the tribalists and trading families, who tend to follow the wishes of the ruling Sabah family.

Not always, though. A few years ago, the family tried to give women the franchise by decree, but the parliament failed to ratify it. It isn't clear whether the government will try again, or what the outcome will be if it does. Parliament is perhaps the most prominent focus of Kuwait's ongoing clash between old and new; Islamist and progressive. Even the parliament building is a construction of the cultural contradictions. Standing stark and white, a modernized jolt against the ancient sands, it was designed to look like a Bedouin tent. …