The Liberation Of The Emir

Kuwait's next struggle will be for political reform

Just as allied troops were driving Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait, Hamed al-Jouaan, a democracy advocate, heard a knock at his door. "I expected the visitor to come and embrace me in celebration," Jouaan told NEWSWEEK. "Instead, he smiled--and then he shot me in the chest." A bullet lodged in Jouaan's spine, permanently paralyzing the dissident lawyer from the waist down. The attack was "politically motivated," Jouaan claimed from his bed in the intensive-care unit of the Al-Sabah Hospital in Kuwait City. "It was some local group that doesn't want to see truth and democracy in Kuwait." Some of Jouaan's associates went further, charging that the assassination attempt was the work of the ruling al-Sabah family--a warning to the forces of reform.

There is a saying now in the Kuwaiti capital: Operation Desert Storm liberated the al-Sabahs but not the people of Kuwait. Despite growing demands for democratization, the ruling family has shown little enthusiasm for restoring even the limited political freedoms they suspended in 1986, for "reasons of security" during the Iran-Iraq War. From the safety of his luxury hotel in Taif, Saudi Arabia, the Emir of Kuwait proclaimed martial law for a minimum of three months. Last week he told reporters that Kuwait "absolutely' would democratize but didn't commit to a date. In Kuwait City his son, Crown Prince Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, was equally evasive. "When you talk to different people you find that they have all sorts of wishes, all sorts of ideas," he said. "But now we have very important duties, very important tasks...There are priorities."

To be sure: more than 500 Kuwaiti oil wells are burning out of control; the capital is a junkyard of downed telephone and power lines, broken water mains and uncollected garbage. Tons of food lie rotting for lack of a distribution system. And bands of Kuwaitis roam the streets in search of collaborators with the Iraqi invaders, usually singling out members of the country's remaining 200,000 Palestinians. Some had in fact abetted the Iraqis during their seven-month reign of terror. But others actually helped the Kuwaiti resistance. "I have good Palestinian friends who fought the Iraqis," said Arafat al-Mesbah, an electrical engineer in the Kuwaiti Army. "May be they're a minority, but the good things they did, nobody knows about."

Last week vigilante bands weren't making fine distinctions. At one checkpoint two Palestinian women waited in a car, blindfolded with the familiar red-checkered headdress worn by men. The driver, an armed civilian, signaled their fate: he grinned and slowly drew a forefinger across his throat. At a different site, two well-dressed Palestinian businessmen, pulled from their car, stood quietly as soldiers searched their possessions. When an address book was found to contain phone numbers in Baghdad, one of the men was cuffed, shoved into the back of an unmarked car and driven away. Estimates of detainees ranged from 300 to 6,000. Several were beaten badly enough to require hospitalization.

Last week it was still unclear who had legal authority in Kuwait. Ostensibly it was the crown prince. But the prince could hardly fend for himself; last week he had to ask U.S. Ambassador Edward W. Gnehm Jr. whether he could spare any food and got military MRE rations in response. Most government decisions were still being made from exile in Taif. Few ministries were functioning in the capital. Control of the police was in dispute. And the Kuwaiti resistance, which endured seven brutal months of Iraqi opposition, harbored resentments of the Kuwaiti Army, many of whose soldiers fled after the invasion last summer. At one police station lat week, a soldier scolded a resistance member for continuing to carry arms: "You should give up your guns, because it's not good to have two armies in the same city." "You're right," came the reply, "but how can we give them up when we don't know who's in charge?"

Once order is restored, demands for democratization are certain to escalate. "After what we've been through," Jouaan said last week, "the people are ready to fight for their rights." The United States, too, is expected to press the ruling family--albeit quietly, for fear of further destabilizing the country and of discomforting the rigid monarchy next door in Saudi Arabia. Before elections can take place, Kuwait will probably have to broaden its narrow electorate, currently restricted to adult males who can prove Kuwaiti ancestry prior to 1920. But suffrage issues are a long way from resolution. Kuwait's leadership must come home first. Two thirds of the country's 600,000 citizens, including most of the royal family, fled after Saddam Hussein's invasion. "A lot of people left who had no reason to leave," said Ahmad Abdel Rasul, an Air Force officer who stayed behind under a fake ID that listed him as a teacher. "If nobody had left, it would have been much harder for the Iraqis to control the country."

The Liberation Of The Emir | News