Humbled by voters, Kuwait's Islamists regroup

Hadas and the Islamic Salafi Alliance were roundly rejected in last year's election, prompting leadership and strategic changes.

Naser al Sane of Hadas says the group is back on its feet after last year's vote in which only one MP remained of six in 2006.
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KUWAIT CITY // When Kuwait's two largest Islamist groups sifted through the ashes of last year's election, they were left with the reality that voters had deserted them in droves and their representation in the National Assembly was reduced by more than half. The defeats spurred the conservatives into long periods of introspection and now two new leaders have emerged. Both have been charged with rebuilding the mandate that has made the groups major parliamentary forces in the past.

"We've been hit. It was very difficult, emotionally, on all of our team," said Naser al Sane, the secretary general of the Islamic Constitutional Movement, also known as Hadas, a group that has ideological roots in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. "But I think we were able to get over the shock in the last few months and we are back on our feet. Everybody is eager to do something. We don't consider this the end of the road, we realise that we have a lot of potential and capabilities, and we can rebuild again," Mr al Sane said.

Hadas reached its popular peak in the 2006 elections, when it won six of 50 available seats, a significant tally in the fractious chamber. When the parliament was dissolved in 2009, there were three Hadas representatives, including Mr al Sane. When the votes were counted in May last year, only one of the "Ikhwan" - Arabic for brothers, as they are commonly known - remained. In the aftermath of the result, the former secretary general, Bader al Nashi, resigned. Mr al Sane, who did not stand in the election, said he took control of the party in September and appointed his political office this month after the movement evaluated "what went wrong".

A statistical analysis of the results found that "all political groups that are well organised have been hit," Mr al Sane said. "We lost, the Salafis lost, the Shias lost and the liberals lost." Despite, its poor return of seats, Hadas still got more votes nationally than all of the country's other organised political groups, he said. "We are number one. What does that tell us? Our tactics are not so good."

The movement fielded candidates from small tribes in the country's tribal constituencies that had little chance of success against members of the larger tribes, he said. Hadas will now focus on "institution building", including the launch of a non-governmental organisation to promote and monitor the country's development and a political training office. He wants the group to refocus on "Islamist issues" - such as the gradual implementation of Sharia - that he believes lies at the root of its previous success, before it was "politicised".

"This is what our followers and members traditionally love, this is the mainstream, I would say. Some people think that we have shifted a little bit away from that so we have to get it back." Mohammed Abduljader, a liberal MP for the National Democratic Alliance who also lost his seat in last year's elections, disagreed with Mr al Sane's position that all political parties were equally rejected by voters

"My loss was the only loss for the group. We did better than previous elections. In the big picture, the Islamists lost," he said. Kuwait's other main Islamist party, the Islamic Salafi Alliance (ISA), also suffered last year. It went into the 2009 election with four members of parliament and emerged with just two. The alliance recently appointed a new secretary general, Abdulrahman al Mutawa, to try and reverse the decline.

Mr al Mutawa, the straight-talking assistant director general for construction projects at the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training, was an unusual choice of leader for the alliance. He is not one of the group's parliamentarians, does not even consider himself to be a politician, rising to prominence through his work in the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, a Salafi charity. "I cannot say something unless I can do it, 100 per cent, this is my mistake, my weakness. I never commit to something unless I can deliver it. A politician cannot be like that," Mr al Mutawa said.

The alliance chose him as their new secretary general because he has no ties to the parliament. The group's elected members adopt positions on issues based on their popularity, but the group wanted a leader "with no agenda", he said. The alliance's popularity has been hit by leading figures publicly disagreeing on policy, making the public unsure of the group's official line, he said. "We'd like it to be contained; we don't want it to be exposed in the paper."

Mr al Mutawa will focus on building the alliance's structure and rules, so its position on any issue is clear and disputes can be resolved internally. He said that while public disagreements have hurt the Salafs' image, they also suffered in the election because they were "betrayed" by the government. "The problem is that when there is a law the government would like to pass, you don't see the government defending their law, you see our members of parliament. They are in the media; they are on the TV defending the government."

"All the people who hate it [the law] will come to you. You will get hit, while the government are sitting, relaxing, and not doing anything. "We gambled on development," and when the government's plans "didn't work out, it hit the party very big." Mr al Mutawa said the alliance's politicians still find themselves "taking the flack" for the government "because we are Salaf, we are not politicians, we always come with an open heart, we are always sincere, we always tell the truth."