Setback for liberal reformers

Calling for sweeping changes to the political system, a disillusioned reformist MP announces he will not run in the upcoming election.

Kuwaiti liberal former parlamentarian Mohammed Al- Saqer, second lefft in brown, announced his plan not to run in the upcoming elections is seen in this file photo taken March 4, 2009 during a parliament's session.

Credit: Gustavo Ferrari for The National *** Local Caption ***  KU103.jpg
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KUWAIT CITY // The liberal reform movement in Kuwait suffered a setback when its highest-profile member of the outgoing parliament, Mohammed al Sager, announced he will not contest his seat in the upcoming elections. In his statement this week, Mr al Sager expressed disillusionment with the political turmoil that has led to the dissolution of three parliaments and the resignation of five cabinets in the past three years. "The country requires a reform of the political system entirely." He said there was no indication the next parliament was prepared for change and democracy. He expects the next assembly will be a "new episode in the series of dissolutions and resignations". Mr al Sager has held a seat in the National Assembly since 1999 and is a member of the National Democratic Alliance, which had three MPs in the 50-member parliament after last year's election. He is also the speaker of the interim Arab Parliament, which the Arab League set up in 2005 in an attempt to create a regional legislative authority. He said he will also resign from this post in the next few days. The news is the latest blow to liberals, who have suffered at the polls in recent years. The Associated Press estimated the number of liberal MPs in parliament before the 2003 elections to be 14. The two main liberal parties held only four seats in the last assembly. Ahmed al Baghdadi, a prominent liberal academic and writer, blames Saudi Arabia for increasing conservatism in Kuwaiti society and the liberals' poor election results. After Iraq invaded in 1990, thousands of Kuwaitis who took refuge in Saudi Arabia were radicalised by the austere Wahhabi reading of Islam, Mr al Baghdadi said. When they returned after the liberation, Kuwaiti society shifted to the Right and Islamists have been chipping away at social freedoms ever since. He said a few years ago the government issued new media laws that enabled them to put journalists in jail easily and liberals in parliament did nothing to prevent it. "Because of commercial interests they really sold everything: freedom, liberalism." Mr al Baghdadi experienced the harsh side of the laws first-hand. In 1997 the court ruled an article he wrote offensive to Islam and he was sent to jail for a month. In 2005, he ended up in the dock again after writing an article saying there was no need for his son, who was in private school, to memorise the Quran. On that occasion, he received a one-year sentence, suspended for three years. "It seems like I am the only one trying to make some troubles with them," Mr al Baghdadi said. Liberal movements are often associated with the youth, but Mr al Baghdadi sees little hope in Kuwait University, where he lectures. He said Gilles Kepel, a famous French author on the Middle East, was once invited to give a lecture. Only 15 people attended. But when the faculty holds a lecture to "explain dreams" as many as 1,000 students will pack into the theatre. "There's something wrong with the mind if you really want to hear a lecture about dreams and you are refusing to hear a lecture about democracy." Ahmed Alsarraf, who was a founding member of one of Kuwait's main liberal parties, which was known as the National Alliance, is described as an "extremist liberal" by his critics - a slight he takes as a compliment. Unusually for a Kuwaiti, he has swapped his traditional clothes for a western suit in a bid to cut the "strings" that he said tie people to their traditional beliefs. Mr Alsarraf said there was only a few true liberals in Kuwait, and those who claim to be liberal might live a western-looking lifestyle, but that does not mean they are totally liberal. He said the diverse range of opinions within the liberal umbrella makes it difficult for them to unite. Islamist groups do not have this problem because their doctrine is written in the Quran. "It's very obvious and the rest have to shut up," he said. Liberals lost more ground in the parliament when the most recent prime minister, who was also the crown prince, struck an alliance with the religious parties in return for their support, he said. They were legalised and permitted to raise money, which amounted to "billions" of dollars. Liberals made unattractive allies because they were scattered and few in number. "Unless this alliance is broken down, unless the government legalises the liberal movement, I don't see any chance that liberalism will have any chance to survive in Kuwait," he said. jcalderwood@thenational.ae