Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood watchful for changes after succession

Between their fears of a radical shift of policy and the authorities’ appeasement temptations, Brotherhood figures jokey for a new role as “advisors” for reform.
Friday 16/10/2020
Kuwaiti Islamist and opposition MPs Jamaan al-Harbash (R) and Abdullah al-Enezi speak during a parliament session at Kuwait’s national assembly in Kuwait City in January 2017. (AFP)
Kuwaiti Islamist and opposition MPs Jamaan al-Harbash (R) and Abdullah al-Enezi speak during a parliament session at Kuwait’s national assembly in Kuwait City in January 2017. (AFP)

KUWAIT –Leaders and figures of the Kuwaiti branch of the Muslim Brotherhood are carefully monitoring changes following the succession that recently occurred at the top of the power hierarchy in the Arab Gulf nation.

Following the death of the late Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah September 29, his brother Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah became the new emir while Sheikh Mishaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah was chosen to be the crown prince.

The Brotherhood is carefully weighing the possible impact of that change on their situation in Kuwait, whether negative or positive, as they hope to strengthen their position and rise further in the echelons of decision-making. In the worst case scenario, they look forward to maintaining their current status, as they enjoy freedom of movement and action and have a presence in the legislative authority represented in the National Assembly.

Kuwaiti political analysts consider that the appointment of Sheikh Mishaal as crown prince represented a negative sign for the Brotherhood, given that the man comes from a security background, having previously assumed the presidency of the State Security Service before spending the last sixteen years as deputy chief of the National Guard with the rank of minister.

Given this background, Sheikh Mishaal must be fully aware of the Kuwaiti Brotherhood’s movements inside the country and their links to many bodies outside, including ties to the top leaders of the international Islamist organisation.

Kuwaiti sources say the Brotherhood’s apprehensions about Sheikh Mishaal are not only due only to his security background. They also have to do with his strong personality and tendency to work quietly and in silence, two characteristics that are expected to be reflected in the way he exercises his duties and give him a greater role in leading Kuwait and making decisions.

In light of these facts, Gulf affairs analysts wonder if the Kuwaiti authority’s relationship with the Brotherhood will witness a radical change during the reign of Sheikh Nawaf and his Crown Prince Sheikh Mishaal. They particularly focus on a scenario in which this change could reach the point of taking a tough stance towards the group, like other Arab countries have. This could mean stripping it of any legitimacy and eventually banning it from political activity, taking into consideration the group’s involvement in criminal activities — from plotting against the regime to seeking to poison Kuwait’s relationship with its Gulf and Arab neighbours.

Some analysts dismiss such a scenario, asserting that there is a tendency among a wide spectrum of the ruling class and decision-makers in Kuwait to try to appease the Muslim Brothers and not provoke them, and to keep them on the political scene as a balancing element to the influence of the secularists and nationalists. In addition, many key figures in the echelons of power, including some senior members of the ruling family, are themselves influenced by the ideology of the Brotherhood and subscribe to it, after having absorbed it in schools and universities at the hands of educators mainly from Egypt.

In light of the rampant corruption in Kuwait and the prevailing state of resentment at the mismanagement of state affairs and waste of abundant resources, the Kuwaiti Brothers find the ground already paved for practicing their traditional and favourite game of wearing the cloak of the “Sultan’s advisers” and his guides to reform.

Within days of the death of Sheikh Sabah and Sheikh Nawaf’s swearing in as the new emir, prominent Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdullah al-Nafisi hastened to draft a document he had jointly prepared with former MP Obaid al-Wasmi with the solemn title “The Kuwait Document.” The document included a diagnosis of the situation in the country from a Brotherhood perspective and a call for “comprehensive reform.”

The document’s authors blamed the authority for “the spread of corruption in all its forms and hues, affecting even all state agencies and institutions and causing people to lose confidence in them and in those in charge of them, and exposing the national wealth to systematic looting over the years.”

After offering a set of proposals inspired by the old Brotherhood’s agenda aimed at changing the nature of the ruling system in Kuwait, including the formation of a “government of national salvation” and approving a “transitional electoral system,” Nafisi and Wasmi moved directly to presenting the immediate demands of the Brotherhood, namely “restructuring the judiciary and its institutions, agencies, courts and litigation procedures, and implementing immediate and urgent measures to close the file of prosecutions and political prisoners.”

The Kuwaiti Muslim Brothers, in coordination and cooperation with the Salafists and other Islamist currents, waged a political and media battle in order to whitewash their members who were pursued by the judiciary, including Brotherhood leader Jamaan al-Harbash, who was sentenced to prison for his role in storming parliament in 2011 and has since fled to Turkey.

Kuwaiti Islamist MP Jamaan al-Harbash speaks during a special parliamentary session in December 2016 at the national assembly in Kuwait City. (AFP)
Kuwaiti Islamist MP Jamaan al-Harbash speaks during a special parliamentary session in December 2016 at the national assembly in Kuwait City. (AFP)

The Muslim Brothers and their partners tried to push for a comprehensive amnesty that would benefit Harbash and others convicted and sentenced in the same case, but authorities insisted on examining each case separately, on condition that each person concerned submit an apology and request a special pardon from the emir.

A few days after the content of the Kuwait Document was leaked to the media, the Kuwaiti Court of Cassation announced its decision to release former Brotherhood MP Nasser al-Duwailah, who had been imprisoned in a case related to “misuse of phone communciations,” after having previously been acquitted of the charge of insulting Saudi Arabia.

Duwailah returned the favour by heaping praises on the new emir for his decision to stop state TV programmes at prayer times and broadcast the call to prayer instead. “A new promising era and a patriotic spirit that believes in the bright future and preserving the fundamentals of Kuwaiti society … Thank you, Your Highness, and may God bless you with more prominence,” he wrote on Twitter.

Kuwaitis attend an electoral campaign meeting for Kuwaiti Islamist and former MP candidate Adel al-Damkhi, in Kuwait City in November  2016. (AFP)
Kuwaitis attend an electoral campaign meeting for Kuwaiti Islamist and former MP candidate Adel al-Damkhi, in Kuwait City in November  2016. (AFP)

Despite criticising the judiciary and calling for it to be restructured, Nafisi also found himself at the receiving end of favours from this same Kuwaiti judiciary. The criminal court acquitted him of the charge of insulting the UAE in the case brought against him by the Kuwaiti foreign ministry.

A noteworthy aspect of the affair is that the ruling in favour of Nafisi was the first court ruling issued in the name of new emir, Sheikh Nawaf, Kuwaiti media reported. Opponents of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood and critics of the way the state deals with it have begun wondering whether the era of Sheikh Nawaf will also turn out to be “a new era of appeasing and accommodating the Muslim Brotherhood.”