Saturday, 21 January 2012

Ibishblog interview: @monakareem, Part 2 - #Kuwaiti politics, foreign policy, sectarianism, & tweeting

Below is the second part of the Ibishblog interview with Mona Kareem, the online activist, blogger, tweep and journalist who is a leading advocate for the stateless community of Kuwait. Part one of the interview focused mainly on the issue of the stateless. But I also asked Mona about the recent crisis and the ousting of the former prime minister, the next phase of Kuwaiti politics, sectarianism in the country and its foreign policy, and tweeting and blogging in and about Kuwait.
The replacement of the Prime Minister and the next phase in Kuwaiti politics
Ibishblog: The impression from the outside is that the recent crisis has been very focused on a couple of things. Number one, the former prime minister as an individual, the length of time he had been in office, the resistance of the Emir to replacing him, and ignoring protests by both the public and MPs. Number two is that there appears to be a very serious division within the royal family, although this is rarely seriously discussed or reported on, at least in English, that bubbles beneath a great deal of the unrest. Is there more to it than that? What's going on here? You say Kuwait may be entering a dark era. What exactly do you mean?
Mona Kareem: Many people, including liberals, conservatives, upper-class individuals, Shiites, all of these constituencies in general were essentially against the protests. Half of them wanted to get rid of the former prime minister, and the other half didn't, but they all didn't like the fact that people stormed the Parliament. The Parliament is considered by many the “symbol of democracy,” the Parliament is “public property,” and it was considered improper by very large numbers of people. I understand this, but nonetheless I like the fact that people stormed the Parliament because it was a strong message of people reclaiming their agency and their own house of representation.
However, I am completely dismayed that this protest came to be driven by Members of Parliament. It's totally ridiculous, because they are already there all day in the Parliament and they are the ones who could make changes, and yet they come in the evening, hijacking the protests, creating the wrong image, and using the whole thing for political purposes. Many people felt compelled to support the prime minister just because those Members of Parliament were siding with the opposition, so they just handed him a temporary victory. If it had been just the public against the prime minister, he would have fallen much earlier.
Ibishblog: And this is particularly true of Islamist and Salafist MPs, correct?
Mona Kareem: Yes, of course. First of all, they have been bribed by certain parties. They defend Saudi Arabia. They want to change the constitution into a sharia document. For some of them, nothing is proven, and I'm fine with those. But even so, why would they come to the protests? This makes no sense and has never happened in the history of Kuwait, because they are the ones with power and influence, so how would you side with the people against power when you have power? It doesn't make any sense. And of course it just hurts the protests. Two years ago when people started campaigning against the former prime minister, although the movement was really small, it was good and the public was impressed. It raised serious questions in an honest way and developed public interest steadily over time. The reaction from the public was good. Now the country is divided. People like the Shiites are afraid. It's not because of Bahrain, or anything like that. It's because all the potential other candidates for prime minister would not have been good for the Shiites. It's not that they'll do anything particularly bad to them, but they will totally neglect them.
Do you remember when Shiite blogger Nasser Abdul was arrested? Well, in spite of the sectarian remarks that he made, and the question of freedom of speech, which I do respect, this was purely a game between two factions within the royal family. Ahmad Fahad, the man who allied with the Salafists, fueled this whole crisis, although of course the former prime minister was to blame too, and each of them sank lower than the other. The country was in a crisis escalated by both of them for the past five years. This guy was going to get questioned when he was the Deputy Prime Minister, and also the head of two other ministries, and that created a crisis. So this man has always been a source of crises, on and off, and a lightning rod. When the Parliament wanted to question him, he was in a position of not being able to answer these questions so rather than submitting to the grilling, he referred the matter to the Constitutional Court. Parliament was outraged, and said this was completely unconstitutional. Of course he was trying to buy time. And then he resigned even before the Court made any decision. He wanted revenge against the prime minister. He believes the former prime minister left him high and dry to battle alone and failed to protect him. But since they are rivals why would he?
Ibishblog: But these developments escalated the rivalry into a full-blown open confrontation?
Mona Kareem: Yes, because it brought the Parliament into it, and then of course the media, and so ultimately the whole of society was then dragged into it as well.
Ibishblog: And the corruption scandals, or the so-called corruption scandals, are another manifestation of this rivalry?
Mona Kareem: Yes, it's another manifestation, driven by both sides. When you saw the Salafists wanting to question the former prime minister it's because they were being driven by Ahmad Fahad and they allied with him for one reason: because they hate the Shiites, and the Shiites were aligned with the former prime minister. It's as simple as that. But when you saw the Action Block or the liberals wanting to question the former prime minister, they were not driven by Ahmad Fahad. They were being driven by their own agenda of being the opposition. They are more rational, but they had their own agenda.
Ibishblog: Do you believe that the former prime minister is a spent force politically, as it seems, but that Ahmad Fahad could make a comeback?
Mona Kareem: Ahmad Fahad, because he already has made several comebacks in the past, very intelligently, if he gets any opportunity to convince the Emir and the new prime minister to get a position again he has a good chance. He has a very strong base in certain tribes, those who are interested in sports, and because his father is considered a martyr. Some people really value that. So he might push for this in a year or two, and he could make a comeback.
Ibishblog: But right now there is no interest on the part of either the parliament or the government, particularly the Emir, in having another eruption of tensions for the next year or so, so there is likely to be a relatively stable situation politically in Kuwait for the next 12 months or thereabouts?
Mona Kareem: This is what the two powers want. The government doesn't want to have any more problems, and go through another cycle of upheaval, while the opposition doesn't want to be seen by the public as continuously creating crises, as they have often been accused of.
Ibishblog: You've argued that the Islamists were able to somehow spin the removal of the prime minister as their achievement and will benefit from it politically. How do you think it's all playing out?
Mona Kareem: Historically, the Islamists have never been part of the opposition, and only recently became combative in order to try to recoup their recent electoral losses. It was the only way for a political comeback from the setback they had in the last election. They took advantage of the opposition's victory to claim credit, and are well-positioned to come back strongly. But we're not witnessing anything like the scenario in Egypt, where they are a strong majority, or even in Tunisia where they became a major force. In Kuwait they've never exceeded six seats out of 50 in Parliament, and even if they do, they'll never become a majority or even reach a third. They were never able to form any alliances in Parliament in the past. It was only in this last Parliament, because of the tensions between the Parliament and the government, that they were able to form any kind of alliance with the Action Block, which is the most popular group, and this alliance I think will expand with the coming elections.
Now, these groups have two different agendas. The Action Block is conservative and is most interested in legislation on housing, and social services, but they really don't care about the Islamist interest in censorship and such things. However, when their political interests come into play they think about their bases, and they think about various communities potentially strengthening or undermining them. One of the biggest examples of this would be gender segregation in education. Ideologically, the Action Block doesn't support this, but when it came to voting on it, they decided to support it because they have a lot of constituents who are in favor of it. So the way the Action Block panders to their voters often ends up helping the Islamists. They have different agendas, but mutual interests, and the Islamists get a lot more benefit from this.
Ibishblog: Because being aligned with the strongest party benefits the Islamists more than it benefits the Action Block?
Mona Kareem: Also you have to remember that most of the Islamists come from tribal backgrounds, and the Action Block knows that if they align with them they are winning over all of the people in those tribes, and getting more "Islamic credentials."
Ibishblog: Where does that leave the bidoun issue? It seems to be escalating, but isn't there the possibility that a more stable political situation in Kuwait, within the Kuwaiti elite and between the government and the opposition, could actually open space for raising the issue of the stateless?
Mona Kareem: Well, this is really the first time in a long time that we as a community have become so active, and that's a very important factor. We need political stability in the country in order to have our issue seriously considered. As long as there is all of this tension between the government and the opposition, or within Parliament, most people will think, "who cares about them." When there is stability, this opens space to ask questions, the issue will get more attention, international organizations will become more concerned, there will be more media interest and a lot more possibilities. During the past year because of the political instability, the issue has been completely forgotten. Any laws redressing our situation will have to be passed by the Parliament. In recent years with this "Central Committee on the Stateless," they've been doing whatever they want because of the tensions, but when there is more space and ability to focus on other issues in Parliament, there are possibilities for us. I'm not suggesting most of the parliament is sympathetic to the bidoun, on the contrary most are against us. Even those who do raise the issue are doing so for ulterior motives or political interests, mostly reaching out to those Kuwaitis who have bidoun relatives and trying to get their support and votes. But if there is political stability, at least there will be more of that.
Ibishblog: Is there any chance of getting more friends in Parliament after the February elections?
Mona Kareem: We've seen something new recently. One of the most prominent figures in the Action Block and another very prominent figure from the Muslim Brotherhood (the Islamists, by the way, have always been against the bidoun or at least avoided talking about the issue) came to the most recent demonstrations to show support for the protesters who were being beaten. And this is quite a big step, to show this kind of support. Now they are only two people, but they are two very prominent individuals in these two groups, very powerful and influential in their own circles, and this might have an impact in the coming parliament with the expected victory for both of these groups and their alliance. If they have more seats, then they will have more power, and if they are more sympathetic, there's more chance they will push for some improvements. Of course, maybe they only showed up for media attention or something. We can't really know their intentions. But this is really new, especially coming from the Islamist party, and of course he's only one man, but he really is an important representative of the whole group.
Sectarianism in Kuwait and its foreign policy
Ibishblog: Let's talk about sectarianism in Kuwait. It looks like it's contained, angry but contained as far as I can tell. Is that right?
Mona Kareem: Discrimination in Kuwait is the norm. It has always existed, it will continue to exist for a really long time, and it has many layers. Sectarian discrimination is only one form. But there are many factors, such as your origin, your family, your status, who you know, how much money you have, where your mother is from, and so forth. The whole problem is very complex. And sectarianism is just one aspect. Sectarianism has always existed. I don't respect those people who say, “no, we never had it.” That's bullshit. My perspective might sound Western, but I measure discrimination on the basis of marriage. If you have a problem letting your son or daughter marry someone from another sect or group, then you are sectarian. I don't care if you have 10 Shiite friends. You're a sectarian.
Ibishblog: I don't see why that value should be considered “Western.” I don't see how toleration of differences should be regarded as a uniquely Western value at all and I think there are Middle Eastern traditions of that and Western traditions of not having that at all. So I don't understand that accusation.
Mona Kareem: But that's what people tell me all the time. They always say, “no, that's just in the West, that's only a Western perspective, and you don't need intermarriage to prove you are not sectarian” and I say, "no, that's not true. If you have a problem with it, you're a sectarian." I don't care if you eat food with a Shiite. That doesn't prove you're not sectarian. Agreeing to intermarriage does prove it.
I'm particularly interested in the case of the activist Khaled Al-Fadala, who I admire a lot even though he made many mistakes. For instance, he organized protests nobody came to, and a bad protest is worse than no protest at all. He was arrested last year for accusing the former Prime Minister of corruption, and even though I disagree with him on many things, I admire him a lot. He even participated in a Shiite-led protest against repression in Bahrain, and he gave a speech saying, “all of us, Sunnis and Shiites, are united, and I love the Bahraini people,” and described how during the Iraqi invasion his family went to Bahrain and was hosted there and protected. So this was very beautiful and sentimental and he emphasized the need to prevent tensions in Bahrain from spreading sectarianism in Kuwait. He insisted, rightly, that it's different in Kuwait than it is in Bahrain and we can't let such things happen here.
Ibishblog: What kind of relationship does Saudi Arabia have with Kuwait, and the broader GCC? From the outside it looks like with the intervention in Bahrain and some other moves over the past 12 months, the Saudis have been very carefully letting everybody know that they are the big brother in the Gulf and they are in charge ultimately. It's a collective security thing and domestic/foreign distinctions break down at a certain point, and if the Qataris want to try to do things in Libya or places like that it's okay, but not in the GCC states, and there is one dominant player there. Do you agree with that, and where does Kuwait fit within the six GCC states?
Mona Kareem: I believe our case is different. I really love the foreign policy of Kuwait. I think it's the best in the region. Kuwait refused to participate in the Peninsula Shield operation in Bahrain. When there was an attempt to include Jordan and Morocco in the GCC, Kuwait had a really smart reaction, which was that we welcome their applications. They didn't say we either approve or disapprove of it, and this is because the Emir worked for four decades in the field of diplomacy. Unlike all the other previous rulers of Kuwait, this is the only guy who has had such long experience in diplomacy and he knows how to deal with it. That's one. Number two, he completely refused any attempts to get Kuwait involved in the Iranian-Saudi clash.
So after the intervention in Bahrain, he met with the editors in chief of all the newspapers -- and he always does that whenever there is a crisis because he wants them to reflect his opinion -- and he told them, “we are a small country, between two giants, don't dare make any remarks against Iran, and certainly not against Saudi Arabia.” So the media is critical, but usually wise, and respectful of his foreign policy because they don't want to enrage people. But there is also the line in some parts of the media similar to the one used in Bahrain about "Iranian intervention." They don't say the word “Shiite” but it's very clear what they mean. So that definitely exists too.
Ibishblog: Has anyone ever suggested the existence of a "Hezbollah Kuwait?"
Mona Kareem: Yes, of course. It's true we do have a representative of Hezbollah in Kuwait. He's a Kuwaiti, but he represents Hezbollah of Lebanon. But there's no Kuwaiti Hezbollah organization. Of course some people do talk about a "Hezbollah Kuwait." But the good thing about Kuwait, and I mean especially the Emir himself, is that he refuses any attempts to make us follow this line or fall into this trap. And I just love it. I really love it. I think if we were still ruled by the former Emir and the situation in Bahrain was as it is now, our troops would actually be there. But this Emir is very smart when it comes to foreign policy and doesn't fall into such traps.
Ibishblog: So, it is respectful but relatively independent relations with Saudi Arabia, within the bounds of what is possible?
Mona Kareem: Yes. And especially over the past two years if you go through the Foreign Ministry statements, you can see how intelligently they have been conducting things, and emphasizing that we are independent, and not allowing ourselves to get dragged into any unnecessary entanglements. But of course there's no challenge to Saudi authority either. Kuwait is not interested in that.
Ibishblog: What's the relationship between Kuwait and Qatar?
Mona Kareem: It's very neutral. Just like it is with Poland [laughs]. Nothing special. That's the Emir's policy: we are not friends or enemies of anyone, except the US. Kuwait only has a clear stand towards the US, which is extremely friendly.
Ibishblog: What about the idea of moving more US troops into Kuwait? There's been some talk of that.
Mona Kareem: It's definitely going to happen, of course.
Tweeting about Kuwait 
Ibishblog: You tweet a lot and I'm completely amazed to find that I can't follow any basic news from Kuwait properly, in English at least, without following your Twitter feed, along with occasional analysis and some longer articles by two noted US professors who specialize in the country. And that's kind of about it. In Arabic there is all kinds of stuff, but it tends to get pretty crazy pretty quickly. So, how did you come to Twitter and how do you find it's affected your own online activities and your relationship with your readers, because you are a writer. Without doubt, you're young but still a fully-fledged writer, not only literary but political.
Mona Kareem: Well, all these things I tweet about specifically regarding Kuwait, of course, is because I am from the country. It's true that I moved to the United States three months ago, but I still have very strong ties to all those people, especially activists on the ground. You can understand the problem with tweeting about Kuwait if you look at what happened with blogging in Kuwait. The first generation of bloggers in Kuwait spoke fluent English, and actually were almost all US graduates, but they didn't write in English. They wrote in Arabic for two reasons. First, because the outside world doesn't really care about what's going on in Kuwait. Maybe now they do, but not then. So, they never saw an outside interest, only a domestic one. Second, Kuwaitis don't seek support or care about any international view about what's going on in their country. They think they can handle everything on their own. At least that was true until the recent crisis. In Egypt, for example, people would blog in English because the outside world certainly cared about Egyptian politics and the crimes of the state, and what have you. But in Kuwait there aren't such severe crimes, or at least there have not been, and there was no real motivation to write in English. And if your audience is only Kuwaiti, they like you if you write in Arabic, especially with the Kuwaiti style.
Bloggers in Kuwait in 2006 did something phenomenal, which I don't think has a parallel anywhere in the world. The bloggers said, "We don't like our electoral system. It really supports discrimination and supports getting members of Parliament that are only representative of their tribes or certain families. We want change." So they created a manifesto, they went to the Parliament, they laid down tents, they stayed there for about two weeks, and then the law was passed. This is something phenomenal.
But it created the momentum for the second generation of bloggers. And this group is really bad, I would say. Because the first generation of bloggers was highly praised in Kuwait, many people wanted to be like them. And the new generation came from a different background. They came out of public educational institutions in Kuwait. They came with a lot of prejudices and don't have any background in politics or human rights, etc. So, blogging became very bad, and as a consequence the first-generation bloggers quit blogging altogether. They basically said, "we can't take it anymore."
So now, we are experiencing almost the same thing on Twitter, especially regarding tweeting in English. It's fascinating that the really smart tweeps in Kuwait are exactly the same people who were the first-generation bloggers. But, when the storming of parliament happened, pretty much all of them were opposed to it and they found the entire thing barbaric, while at the same time they were almost all against the former prime minister. And now, it's becoming obvious that they are getting sick of it. Again they're confronting the same dilemma with Twitter that they did with blogging: the whole thing is being dominated and hijacked by the wrong people and they are going dormant and staying quiet because they can't take it anymore. It's not because they're afraid, but they just feel it's a hopeless case. Too many people are taking it too far, and there's too much reactionary nonsense being posted. And the quality is becoming too low and they don't want to be part of it.
My number one motive for tweeting is that I see a lot of misperceptions about Kuwait and the Gulf. Sometimes people call me defensive.
Ibishblog: Actually, I think you're brutally honest.
Mona Kareem: Thank you.
Ibishblog: Most importantly in terms of domestic Kuwaiti politics, when you've been writing about recent events you've been honest enough to acknowledge the extent to which so much of this is driven by rifts within the royal family, and that's something almost nobody writes about in English. They hint at it at times, maybe, and there are the two noted US professors who sometimes hint at it gingerly, but for whatever reason so-called analysts and journalists that write about Kuwait in English for the most part never mention it, even though it's so central.
Mona Kareem: Journalists and columnists in Kuwait write about it in Arabic all the time. But you're right, people who write about Kuwait in English, for whatever reason, continuously avoid the subject. I don't have any idea why. There's no reason they need to or should. But for some reason they do. Yeah.

~ reposted by Sofia Smith

No comments:

Post a Comment