At least 70 demonstrators were arrested and dozens were injured in clashes with security personnel during Sunday’s mass rally in Kuwait City, called to protest the recent amendment of an electoral law. Islamist and other opposition groups say the government’s move is designed to affect the outcome of parliamentary elections scheduled for December.
Charges of Muslim Brotherhood involvement in the unprecedented protests were leveled in Kuwaiti media, but Mahmoud Hussein, secretary-general of the Egyptian group, denied that it had anything to do with the situation in Kuwait.
“This is an internal Kuwaiti affair,” Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm daily quoted him as saying in a statement. “We have nothing to do with it.”
It cited one Kuwaiti outlet as charging that it had been “proven beyond doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and abroad led the rioters to plot against the regime.”
Such allegations come amid rising concerns among Gulf officials that the Muslim Brotherhood, emboldened by its advances in North Africa, is now seeking to destabilize oil-rich states of the Gulf. Kuwait is one of just 14 countries around the world recognized by Washington as “major non-NATO allies.”
Earlier this month the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) urged neighboring states to cooperate against plots by the Muslim Brotherhood – which he said “does not believe in the nation state” – to undermine governments in the Gulf.
The police chief of the UAE emirate of Dubai has also been outspokenly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, warning this year of a plot by the veteran Islamist organization against Gulf states.
Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan was quoted in March as telling a Kuwaiti newspaper that his “sources” have reported that the next step in the conspiracy will be to turn Gulf states’ governments into “figurehead” bodies only, with Kuwait the first target this year and other Gulf states to follow by 2016.
UAE authorities over the summer arrested 60 Islamists belonging to a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. Last month prosecutors said they had confessed to plans to work towards the establishment of an Islamist government, using funding from Muslim Brotherhood members in neighboring countries.
With the exception of Bahrain – a Sunni-ruled kingdom with a restive Shi’ite majority – Gulf states have largely dodged “Arab spring”-type protests over the past two years, thanks in part to generous welfare systems funded by oil and gas reserves that have traditionally kept their small populations docile.
A limited protest movement in Saudi Arabia was defused last year when King Abdullah announced a spending and jobs package worth billions of dollars.
But simmering discontent has begun to unsettle the autocrats ruling the states in the region.
In Kuwait, where the Sabah dynasty has ruled for almost 200 years, 83 year-old Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah on October 7 dissolved parliament – for the sixth time since 2006 – a move that means elections are required within 60 days.
Earlier the government announced plans to amend an electoral constituency law so as no longer to allow voters to elect up to four parliamentary candidates in their districts. Kuwait’s constitutional court last month quashed that decision, but the government overruled the court and went ahead with it. It was published in the government’s gazette this week, and is now in force.
Opposition groups charge that the move amounts to a coup against the constitution, with the aim of weakening them and producing a legislature that serves merely as a rubber stamp to government decisions.
In reaction to Sunday’s violent protests, the government has now banned gatherings of more than 20 people and handed police greater powers to disperse demonstrators.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 with the goal of uniting Muslims under shari’a-enforcing governments with the eventual aim of restoring the Islamic caliphate, the last one of which had been formally abolished in Turkey four years earlier.
It later developed branches across the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt stoked concerns in some of these other Arab countries, including Gulf states and Jordan. (The situation is fuzzier in Qatar, which has good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and has promoted it through the Doha-based Al-Jazeera television network. Qatar is also home to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian cleric regarded as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s emir this week became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas – the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood affiliate – seized control there in 2007.)
When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi became president of Egypt last June, he pledged during an inauguration ceremony not to “export the revolution” or interfere in other countries’ affairs.