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Kuwait's wait for democracy

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Kuwait held a national election this week.

Sort of.

Kuwaiti women still weren't allowed to vote. For that matter, neither were most Kuwaiti men. Only the small percentage of adult males who could prove that their families were living in the country 61 years ago were given the right to participate in the election of a new National Assembly.

Even though only the elite could vote, they elected an assembly that will be dominated by candidates who openly oppose the ruling monarchy. Now Kuwait's rulers must show that they are prepared to allow the assembly to wield real power.

Kuwait's emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, disbanded Kuwait's last nominally independent National Assembly six years ago when it began to behave in ways that displeased the royal family. The emir also has retained the crucial authority to hand-pick Kuwait's 22-member cabinet. If the makeup of the new cabinet does not reflect the political makeup of the new assembly, these elections could turn out to have been an empty exercise.

After Iraqi troops invaded his country in 1990, the emir promised that he would institute sweeping democratic reforms once he was restored to power. That promise did nothing to hurt the Kuwaiti monarchy's image in the eyes of the United States and the other countries that banded together to rout Kuwait's occupiers. However, the emir added several conditions to his promise once he and his family were safely back in power.

Unless he has learned nothing from the events of the past two years, the emir will permit the establishment of a new government that can give an effective voice to the political frustrations that most Kuwaitis feel, whether or not they have the privilege of voting.

Whether through elections or more drastic means, most Kuwaitis intend to bring an end to the al-Sabah family's monopoly on power and riches. The U.S. government, which certainly earned a voice in Kuwaiti affairs as a result of the war, should encourage the emir to follow through with serious reforms that fulfill his earlier promises.