Monday, April 28, 2008

Democracy Shmocracy: A Kuwaiti Story

We are only 19 days away from elections as the country heats up, more electoral headquarters open, and people filter down their last few candidates. Tonight is the opening of Al-Tahaluf Al-Watani which is the viewed as the liberal party in the race. Liberal here does not mean the same as it does in the United States. In America, Liberal is the direct opposition of Conservative. Here in Kuwait, Liberal is set as the opposite of Political Islam. While it can still be referred to as such, anyone who knows who Rush Limbaugh is should know that Kuwaiti Liberalism is closer to a mesh of Republican economic policies with the Democrats humanitarian agenda, so I am not sure if Rush would even bother giving it airtime. Yesterday was the opening of Khaled Al-Sultan who is the head of the Seleffy organization, one of the two (perhaps three if you include Al-Umma) Political Islam groups in Kuwait and a respected leader among those circles across the Arab world.

What a wide range we enjoy in Kuwait. You have the leftists the extreme rightists and everything in between. Democracy, competition, and increased focus on corruption have made this election more issues-focused than any previous one we have ever experienced. You talk to one person, and say will you vote for Joe Shmoe? He'll ask "Where does Joe Shmoe stand on increasing minimum wage?" My previous post about transition covered the change Kuwait is facing. So what's the problem? Aren't things becoming better?

I talked to a coworker of mine and asked him: "How are the elections with you? You fired up?". Keeping in mind that this person is at least ten years my senior, he replied "Oh I don't watch that garbage, I'm not registered". Wait a second…how can he not be registered? I mean granted, there are a few people out there who falsely believe that their failure to play a role in change is the same as protesting the current situation and choose not to vote. This person has never registered. He went through college, worked for years and years and just refused to take part in the democratic process. I asked him why, and this was the conversation we had:

Middle Aged Boss Man: There is no such thing as real democracy. Not even in the United States (I love that someone who has never lived in the US thinks they understand it like its Adailiya). Oh don't get me wrong…the US has freedoms. Freedoms and democracy are not the same.

Saracen: Ok…then what type of system would you like for Kuwait?

Middle Aged Boss Man: I think we have to have one supreme ruler who can make the decisions for all the country. He is the final word and we obey. Everything is at a halt because of the Parliament and the problems they caused throughout the year. Look at Dubai…because it’s a one man show, their leader can go invest tons of money where ever he wants and the people don't have a say.

Saracen: Yeah, but what about you? What about your voice? The Parliament is the watchful eye of the people, making sure that the forces of corruption stay in check so that Kuwait can remain beautiful. Are you happy with just being a passenger?

Middle Aged Boss Man: There is no such thing as Democracy! This is not democracy, this is a farse.

Saracen: What if someone came and said that our current conversations is against the law? What if someone came and said that your daughter is not allowed to receive an education. Or because your son doesn't do well at school, he has to be moved to a school of lesser caliber. Who will you go to?

Middle Aged Boss Man: I don't need to go to anyone. The ruler decides and we obey. Listen Saracen, we are behind and its all because of these individuals. Anyone who is actually good and is running for Parliament is STUPID, excuse my language. If they were really good, they would not run."

Saracen: Ok, well that's how you see it…but wait a second. You never registered? I would understand if you were disenchanted with the current situation just because of crisis after crisis…but what about before?

Middle Aged Boss Man: I believe in one man rule. Democracy Shmocracy.

My opinion is and will always be that the worse Parliament is better than no Parliament at all. If you are one of those who believe that there is in fact no one worth voting for, than practice your obligation in selecting the lesser of all evils. However, with the selection of political views and the array independents that are in each electoral district, don't hide behind undeveloped and uneducated understanding of democracy. Don't justify laziness by sounding some grand view of anti-Democracy mumbo jumbo. Its sad and pathetic and we're on to you.

What we are all supposed to be...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Selling Votes and Taking Notes

I love the concept of a Diwaniya. I really do. Men sit around, in a grand formal setting, often from different segments of society bringing their set of knowledge, values and perspectives on life. Oh…and in this part of the world, they also bring gossip. What's an election, after all, without a certain amount of he said/she said. In the spirit of my little mixed diwaniya here at the Panic Button, I'm going to perpetuate this tradition and tell you a story without, of course, assuming any responsibility for its accuracy.

A religious bearded friend of mine starts to tell me his story:

Black Beard: Hey Saracen, did you hear about the people that got pulled by the cops? Flaan and Flaan??

Saracen: Yeah, loosely getting bits of news here and there….

Short Pause

Saracen: Okayyy…What about them??

Black Beard: Well, a friend of mine from high school who I've known for years came to another friend's diwaniya where we were sitting. We were four men, and he was our fifth. This was a few days ago…

Saracen: Uh huh, and then?

Black Beard: So he starts saying

Flashback Scene (Think Grease with the whole stairway in the Johnny Rockets restaurant)

Sketchy Guy: Listen guys, if you or someone you know wants to sell their vote to Flaan, you can come through me.

Black Beard: You're working for that guy?

Sketchy: Why wouldn't I? There is a lot of money in it and he's good for Kuwaitit!

Black Beard: (smiling widely)…Ok, but how much?

Sketchy: Haaa…um…700 KD

Black Beard: You bastard, are you trying to take us for a ride? We know the price has gone up to at least 1000 KD

Sketchy: Yeah, but I get something…you guys wouldn't get to this guy except through me.

Black Beard: (Laughing) Yeah, no thanks.

Sketchy: Itha it7armoon* there is another option. Vote for Flaan, and he will give you a gurantee that whenever you need something from him, he will take note of your name and make sure that you get that one thing that you ask for.

Black Beard: (Laughs mockingly) Like a genie?

Sketchy: I told you guys what I wanted to tell you, and the choice is yours. He's going to win no matter what, you might as well get something out of it. God knows nothing else works in this country.

End Flashback

Saracen: No way…has it really come down to this?

Pause while we both shake our heads with disapproval

Saracen: (suddenly looking up and at Black Beard) Agool, I have a question. What made this guy think that someone with your obvious religious inclination think that you would be interested in something like this.

Black Beard: (grinning widely) I don't know, I guess because we knew each other from high school.

Saracen sits with a question mark on his face letting his mind wander…

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Thanks for our Rights, Waleed!

We live in the information age. Before, public figures were restricted to one or two different mediums through which they could get out their message. Today, the selection is seemingly limitless. MP hopefuls have facebook sites, more well off candidates have invested in dedicated TV channels, and then there is the classic newspaper approach. Suffice as to say, we are hearing a lot more about and from our nominees than we ever did before. There is a problem, however, with increased exposure: eventually, the truth comes out.

Yesterday, a lot of the different channels, that have been doing a good job of getting candidates out there for us to learn what their about, hosted some of the political Islam hopefuls. Whether they belonged to the party or enjoyed a not so amicable recent divorce, these candidates agree on one major topic: women. Now don't get flattered just yet little lady, you may want to wait and hear what it is they agree on.

There is a new trend among Islamlist MP Hopefuls that involves them marketing themselves as the woman's rights candidates. Yes, you heard me. That's the pitch, buy it or not. In the local cooperatives, these same parties have been dependant on women for years which have kept them at the helm of cash cows such as Rawdha, Kaifan, and Faiha cooperatives. As a result, they were able to translate that strong foundation into larger scale politics. Hey liberals, you snooze you lose. That's the way the game is played.

Still, one can't help but wonder if the increased media and the fact that they are getting asked the hard questions will deter some of our female counterparts, and make them think twice about where to invest their vote. Or will it be the opposite? Will they be so smooth and convincing as to win over yet even more women? Mind you, these are the same women they refused to give the right to vote for the last 40 years. Well listen to what they have in mind for the fairer sex and you be the judge.

All the MP hopefuls, among them many that had previously been in power, discussed a draft law they have been pushing for that has failed in the past. It's being described as a humanitarian law which restores some of the God given rights to women. One of the major concepts is allowing women the option of a full retirement at almost half the time as men. 15 years, and she's free to return to her home and receive monthly social allowance from Kuwait with all the bells and whistles that full retirement offers. Incorporated in this draft law is the 8pm rule. From a humanitarian perspective, it is not right for women to work past 8pm because, according to what the MPs said yesterday, even the Quran said that women are weaker than men (move over Aysha, there is a curfew now) and their fragile physiques won't support them till 8:15. Their final point, and the one that truly portrayed their esteem for their female counterparts was the stipulation in the law that would allow women to go home early after a hard days work. When one of the MPs was asked why this existed, he calmly replied: "so that she can have time to go home, and cook, and make sure the kids got back ok from school". It must be said, however, that within the law there is a reward system for stay at home Mom's whose kid perform well in school. Enough inventive for you?

Thank God for television, newspapers, blogs, and internet. Thank God for those who dare ask the tough questions and reveal people at their truest nature. Oh, and thank God for political Islam, without which women would not catch Opera while preparing the roast. Thanks Waleed!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

I already spoke on this topic in my earlier post, and you all know where I stand. I just thought its important for us to see what it is we are dealing with here:

Its a shame to see even the most known of the former Members of Parliament go down the level as to say that the reaction of our Kuwait's Police Force as exaggerated and unwarranted. That is how much you want those votes? Why don't you believe that if you went to the tribal areas and explained why what happened had to happen in terms of government reaction, that they may end up agreeing with you? Why don't you believe that even if they don't, you will be representing a more noble principal of a united Kuwait under law, order and democracy as opposed to mob rule? That would have been the braver course of action...the brave are few today.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Painful but Necessary

Photograph Source: Al-Qabas

Transition is always hard on a nation. It can be frustrating, controversial and downright painful. Especially, when the people have been used to something for so long, that the impending change seems to threaten their way of life, this is when the hurt really runs deep. Well look out Kuwait, transition is here and we should get ready for it.

Friday's events at the tribal primaries held by the Awazem witnessed a clash that can only be described as colossal by Kuwaiti standards. After all, we are not Egypt, or Syria, or even France that witnessed a series of riots that had the country petrified. This is Kuwait, and we are Kuwaitis. Historically, we are used to having loud mouths and being in a state of perpetual disagreement with our beloved Government. Beloved, is without any sarcasm or down talk. After all, if Kuwait is the body, then our Government is the brain and our Parliament is the heart. Even though they might not see eye to eye, they each know deep inside that one cannot exist without the other. However, there are people out there that stand to benefit from disrupting this balance.

After the dark events of Friday the 11th, there has been an ongoing debate of whether or not the entire situation was mishandled. Many say that the Ministry of Interior should have sent a negotiator without the "provocative" show of force that was present outside Diwan Ghanem Al-Mee. Others say that since the results had already come out, and the primaries were in effect over, the police should have not bothered showing up and just arrested the key individuals later that day. After all, they cannot prevent something that has already happened. Then there are those that say the entire premise of the Government attempting to stop the primaries is unfair towards the tribes because the "blue blood" political parties which are located in the inner circles of Kuwait have already succeeded undergoing their own primaries without hindrance. Terms such as "blue blood" and "inner/outer" have been thrown around often these days. I suppose its part of the transition.

Well Kuwait, if I were to have a message, if I were in a position of power, if I could say one sentence in hopes that all citizens can be united under such a message it would be this:

"Transition is hard and painful, but it is necessary and will make our nation stronger as long as we show patience, perseverance and most of all, wisdom."

Its not Voltaire or Aristotle, but it is exactly what we need to remember as Kuwaitis. What the police did that day and how they handled that situation was necessary to maintain the law and order of a nation. Make no mistake, just because we can see our Ministers without taking appointments in their Diwans and just because Members of Parliament are the same people that we have over for dinner and a game of "coat" does not make us any less of a nation. The prestige and power of the law must be secured. Yes, it is painful to see what we saw for both those who support the tribes and those who support the police. This is what transition is all about and if Kuwait has been lax and negligent with enforcing the law in the past, it is clearly changing that in the present.

As a citizen, I feel an obligation and a national duty to support our boys in blue because they have been supporting me for so long. It is because of them that our doors stay unlocked at night. It is because of them that we are able to feel secure, being a minority in our own country. They guarantee our freedoms and our rights, and preserve the prestige of our government. Today, they need us more than ever before. The transition we are facing is hard and painful on all involved. All I ask is that we remember that we are a nation, and a nation we shall forever remain.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Women: Their Own worst Enemy

First of all, I consider myself a major proponent for the woman's right to vote. In my view, it was simply the most logical stance, considering that the fairer sex represents more than half the population. Their voting is a representation of what their priorities are, what topics they believe in, and which candidates they believe will keep them on their mind come victory time….

At least that how it's supposed to work in theory. The fact is, as proven by the 2003 elections, women put in power the very same men who prevented them from winning their rights in the past 40 years: Political Islamists. Unlike some of my liberal colleagues in the blogosphere, I believe that political parties based on a morals campaign with rightist tendencies is an important part of Kuwaiti politics which completes the Yin Yang of our beloved parliament. Whether or not I personally would endorse them is unrelated to the whether or not I feel more comfortable having a conservative in a seat of power in order to provide some much needed perspective. Having said that, I naturally expect all women, conservative or otherwise, to disagree with me wholeheartedly given their particular history with these individuals. It turns out, women agree with me even more than I agree with me: and that is a very sad.

The last election, people attributed the strange trend of women voting on the fact that the gender represents newcomers to politics in general. Some even said that next time, they will be more prepared and the awareness among this entire population of Kuwaitis that have been done a great injustice for the past decades will increase. Now while I like to stay optimistic, I can safely say that this is about as likely seeing a polar bear wandering our beautiful deserts (Don't get any ideas, Coca Cola).

Let me give you a tangible example of why I feel that this election will have us seeing woman elect more of the same, the same being Islamists or non-female candidates. The National Democratic Coalition has succumbed to pressure from the public and finally included a woman on their three person ticket. This time, Kuwaitis will have 4 votes, and the party decided to leave one seat open as a strategic way of guaranteeing more votes. The lady has a PhD and is well known among the academic circles, with a background in woman's rights movements in Kuwait. When conversing with someone of significant intelligence and education, of the fairer sex mind you, I asked whether or not she plans on giving her vote to this individual.

"Considering that she has the same political tendencies, that she is an educated woman, and that she has woman issues on the brain, you gonna vote for her?" I curiously asked. "I won't vote for her just because she's a woman, but I will vote for her if she's actually better than the other candidates". Woman, meet your Achilles heal and the reason why you will yet again fail to reach a seat in Parliament. The question is this: I'm advocating that women vote for this woman because she is a woman? Answer: BIG YES.

I am not a woman, and therefore I don't belong to this "minority" group. My feelings are less strong towards women issues, because no matter how much I support positive reform, not being a woman myself, impedes the feeling of being mistreated by society for so long. The woman has been refused her rights for 40 years! How in God's name do you expect a gender totally new to politics to be "better" than 40 odd male candidates who have a) been doing this for years, b) have tried every single approach to winning a seat until they found the one that works and c) have developed a loyal constituency in the 40 years you were busy reading about politics rather than joining in? You can't and she won't. So stop conceding to the complexes imposed on you by the men of our society that have made you weary of voting for a woman just because she's a woman. Islamists vote for Islmaists just because they are, tribals do the same and so do people who vote on a same religion bases. If you, the women of Kuwait, do not tick that name on the ballot card, the people who stopped you from having your rights won't either so think twice before you decide to wait for women to become better than men at a game they just learned how to play.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

"They Be Frontin!"

In urban America, particularly among the African American population, there is a concept known as "frontin". Depending on its use, it can mean a number of different things, but mainly its used to describe a person who talks a big game, but when it comes time to actually do something, they opt for inaction. A lot of people do that in life. You know them, I know them, and we all have our impressions of what we think of them, whether we like them or not.

Frontin is what the Kuwaiti government has been doing for the past year. After the Ministers acknowledged that there was a genuine cry from the people that our laws be enforced, the Kuwaiti government decided to take action against those infringing on the law. Mainly, I am referring to the issue of the removal of Diwaween. See, for the longest times, anyone with a few meters squared in front of his house felt at liberty to use that land in the hopes of adding more space and practicality to what maybe a limited home. Some built gardens, and contributed to the beautification of the area. Others brought in ready made rooms from tin and metal to house their local house workers. Then there are those who made Diwaween.

What do all these people have in common? They are all, without exception, breaking Kuwaiti Law. Yes, granted, the person with the garden perhaps deserves to be judged less harshly than the person who built a room above an electric generator and rented it to a local Hindi tailor (Fact). However, the law is the law. It must be obeyed, it must be respected and it must go above the selfish needs of individuals. It must, because there are other laws that we rely on daily. Laws that allow us to say what we please in the media, and roam freely around the country. Laws that give us the freedom to move in all hours of the night without worrying about infringing on a national curfew. Laws that ensure that no black knights will barge into our homes, take us away from our families and lock us up for years at a time because of what we think.

The government has a duty, nay, an obligation to the people to make sure laws are enforced. It is one of the factors that are necessary in both economic and political growth of a nation. That is what we are right? Last I checked, we are a nation? Well then, a nation has rules that protect us and protect the prestige of our government. A government without prestige leads to situations like we see in Lebanon, where the disenchantment with the political process has peaked to the point of not wanting a President. Make no mistake, people: the only thing worse than inaction is a government that "fronts".

You said you were going to do something, well do it. The Kuwaiti people are with you, and for those who are not, who cares. They are law breakers, and they are not breaking the law of dictators, they are breaking the law of the people put there by OUR parliament. So with all do respect: don't be frontin, do something son!


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Where's Waldo??

These past days, I've been thinking a lot about the true meaning of democracy. The right of the people to have a say in the way that they wish to be governed. The freedom to create laws and legislation which bring our society closer to our moral and ethical inclinations….

I've also been thinking of the consolidation of votes that is to say being part of a created voting block with the hopes of being recognized as a group rather than an individual. Here's my problem with it: In the US, voting blocks are not so much created as they are natural. They occur on the basis of ethnic background at times (Latinos), age group (Senior Citizens) and common beliefs. The reason these people unite is so that where they have common ground, politicians will be obliged to move forward an agenda which is beneficial to the block.

Over here, we have a similar concept but different basis. There are areas in which the tribes are very strong (4th and 5th electoral districts) and they happen to vote as a block. The basis is that they belong to the same branch of the same tribe, and a higher council consisting of leadership figures tells them to give their vote to one person or another. The other type of voting blocks we have in Kuwait is religiously based. If you subscribe to the Salafy view of Islam and how a state should function, you will actively support those who represent the Salaf. Same goes for the Muslim Brotherhood (although with the hopes of moving away from such association, they preffer you don't call them that anymore).

Here is my dilemma. I'm not sure I can find anything wrong with this system. I mean, besides being a small country in which the ramifications of these processes are felt more severely, people have the right to vote in a block which they feel represents them. That's just a fact. Now where does that put me? I'm not tribal, at least not in the sense we use tribal today, and I don't subscribe to Political Islam. The other groups that represent me slightly better (because I still feel that there is no group that fully represent my views) are disorganized, and at times, unimpressive.

The only solution I could think of was consolidating as many votes as possible on the basis of my family. The more votes, the more influence we can have on how we are to be governed, meaning the closer we get to the true purpose of democracy. So let us ask ourselves: Is this the future of Kuwait? Will that married man who's Dad made the mistake of only having three kids as opposed to seven, or that one non-tribal house in a tribal area be forever doomed into futility and non-representation?

Yeah…pretty much….and their ain't nothing you or me can do about it, Waldo ;-)