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Kuwaiti election points to new tide of Islamic fundamentalism in region

A new tide of Islamic fundamentalism is sweeping along the super-rich city-states of the Arab side of the Gulf. This is the conclusion drawn, along with reports from other Gulf emirates, from the Feb. 23 parliament elections here in Kuwait.

About two-thirds of the total, all-male electorate went to polling booths organized in Kuwait's many fine schools. They swept out the Arab nationalists who had half a dozen members in the previous 50-member chamber, replacing them with a similar number of the new fundamentalists.

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The majority, now as in the 1975-76 parliament, is made up of traditional figures from big local families. Some analysts detected a shift within this majority from the big merchant families of Kuwait City, to representatives of the traditionally pastoral Bedouin tribes whose loyalty to the ruling Sabah family is unquestioning.

The previous parliament here was dissolved in mid 1976, with the then emir accusing it of "sowing discord among the populace." The rapid deterioration of parliamentary democracy in Lebanon at that time was one important factor in his decision.

But the emir, and his successor, remained committed to returning democracy to Kuwait as and when feasible. And despite the extreme proximity of the Gulf war battlefronts which exploded last September, the election schedule drawn up here last year went ahead peacefully, as planned.

The big surprise, between 1976 and today, has been the rise of the new Islamic radical groups here and the concomitant withering of support for the Arab nationalists.

The new fundamentalists are usually young, often graduates of American universities. They combined a slick and efficient campaigning procedure with "platforms" that spoke of little except a return to traditional forms of Muslim social organization.

Asked to describe his aims, successful fundamentalist candidate Jasem Awn would say only that these were, "the bringing of God's rule to earth."

Mr. Awn, a young official in the Ministry of Awqaf (religious trusts), wore the uniform of the new fundamentalists. This is a short but full beard, and the Arab robe cut not full-length, as most Kuwaitis prefer, but calf-length only, so as not to sully it with dirt during prayers.

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This physical apperance is common at Kuwait's large prestige national university. Roughly half the male students now sport it. Their female counterparts, equally numerous, cover their hair with a scarf and wear floor-length skirts and gloves.

Women so arrayed made up one-third of the corps of teachers in the Feb. 25 national parade. One large fundamentalist group, the Silfiyyin (New Breed), emphasizes particularly the raising of a new, more religious generation. It was the Silfiyyin who organized the storming of Mecca's Grand Mosque in late 1979, an event that shook Muslim leaders.

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