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Kuwait's Moves Toward Democracy Flounder


SINCE allied tanks rolled into Kuwait City five weeks ago, Kuwait has become the Humpty Dumpty state that no one seems to be able to put together again. The Iraqi invasion and subsequent flight of the ruling Sabah family has released a tangle of competing political forces in the country. Reassembling the social and political harmony of prewar Kuwait is proving much more difficult than anyone, including the government, had imagined, say current and former Kuwaiti officials.

Kuwait has been without a government for two weeks. Consultations by Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, the crown prince and prime minister, over formation of another have gone more slowly than was hoped, former senior Kuwaiti officials say. The former officials, who are close to the deliberations, say there may not be a new government for two weeks until the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

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The greatest problem, they say, is that political figures prominent before the Gulf war are reluctant to join a Cabinet until the Sabah family commits itself more firmly to democratic reform. Politicians worry that joining the Cabinet now could discredit them in the eyes of the electorate when and if elections are held.

In theory, the new government is supposed to be a transitional one until elections are held. But few are willing to join a government that may be in power for only six months. The coming months could see growing public frustration at the slow pace of reconstruction, and being in such a hot seat makes a ministry post look unattractive.

If, on the other hand, the next Cabinet is to remain in power for two years or so, then others might be attracted to joining the government, political observers say. Such a delay in reforms, however, could anger opposition groups who are already discussing a campaign of civil disobedience over the democracy issue.

Publicly, the Sabah family is committed to a renewal of democracy and the 1962 Constitution, which upheld parliamentary rule. But in recent days, sources involved in consultations with the crown prince say the royal family worries that democracy at this time could throw Kuwait into a long period of instability.

Sheikh Saad last week spoke to a group of 40 leading citizens, all of whom had remained in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation. He told them he was considering alternatives to the country's former style of democracy.

The sheikh's comments brought an argument with two members of the delegation, say former government officials who attended the meeting. One of the those involved in the argument asked the sheikh bluntly, "Do you want to rule Kuwait directly or do you want to share power with the people?"

According to this account, Saad, repeated an argument made many times in exile that democracy should only be renewed after security had been reestablished, public services resumed, and reconstruction well under way. Kuwait, he reportedly said, was being threatened by "alien ideologies" that were causing divisions among Kuwaitis.

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A "new form of relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government" was necessary, the sheikh said, if parliament was to avoid being dissolved again.

The ruling Sabah family canceled democracy twice in the last 15 years. The first time was in 1976, then again in 1986 during a financial scandal.

The Kuwait Democratic Forum, the most vocal of the opposition groups, has demanded that none of the outgoing ministers be included in the new government. Abdullah Nibarri, the Forum's spokesman in Kuwait, argues that what is needed is a government of national unity to include opposition figures.

"A change of faces is simply not enough at this time," Mr. Nibarri says.

Opposition groups have targeted for removal three senior Sabah figures, who hold the portfolios of foreign affairs, defense, and the interior ministries. The removal of the defense minister, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah, is also a popular demand of junior officers within the Army, says a high-ranking Army officer.

Traditionally, Sabah family members have always held these three key posts. Giving them up is likely to be unacceptable to some Sabah family members, according to family members. But interviews with members of the ruling family show some divisions.

Some of the younger members believe family rule will go on forever, while others believe only elections can sort out who represents the Kuwaiti people. There is concern among its more liberal members that the prime minister, Sheikh Saad, and senior Sabah members will resist change and jeopardize the whole system.

Until now, Sheikh Saad has not included the opposition in his deliberations on the next government. But traditional sources of support for the government - the independents and the merchant community - may not prove so reliable as they have in the past in the absence of a commitment on democracy. Leading figures in the merchant community, including Abdul Azziz al-Sager, the president of the powerful Chamber of Commerce, are firmly in the opposition camp.

There is speculation among senior Kuwaitis that the crown prince may now look for support to the Shia community and the fundamentalist Jamiat Islah, the Society of Goodness, the local branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood movement.

For both groups, such overtures represent their first chance of power. But a government of political opportunists seems unlikely to provide the credible and durable government that Kuwait needs, political observers say.

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