I haven't had time to follow the Kuwaiti elections as closely as I would have liked, but the results are interesting. Most of the English-language coverage has emphasized that Islamists did well, increasing their share of Parliament to 21 out of 50 seats, women again failed to win any seats, and liberals roughly held steady. Shia, who make up about a third of the population, increased their share from 3 seats to 5 (10% is better than 6%, but still far from equitable); all of their winning candidates were reportedly Islamists, including several who sparked sectarian anger over their praise for Hezbollah a while back, and some of the Saudi media in particular seem to eagerly anticipate increased Sunni-Shia tension.
But as my colleague Nathan Brown, just back from observing the election, put it, the real story is "long beards good, short beards bad."
Dr. Badr al-Nashi, Islamic Constitutional Movement ("short beards"), photo via Ikhwanweb
What does that mean? The key change seems to be in intra-Islamist competition: the decline of the Islamic Constitutional Movement - the Muslim Brotherhood style party, i.e. "short beards" - and the rise of the salafi movement, i.e. the "long beards". The ICM (which formally split with the MB back in 1991 over the organization's attitude to the Iraqi invasion, but which remains an MB-style party and is routinely identified as such) won only 3 seats, down from 6. The Islamic Salafi Alliance - which reportedly is thinking about forming a political party, but hasn't yet done so, which would really blur one of the long-standing distinctions with the MB across the region - won 10 seats, with another 8 seats going to independent Islamists (many from tribal areas).
This might have less to do with changes in actual underlying preferences than with the effects of the new electoral law, as some reports suggest that the ICM simply bungled the tribal vote and lost several seats it should have won. Islam Online quotes both salafi and Muslim Brotherhood figures arguing that the results had more to do with electoral politics than with any real change in support for either salafism or the Ikwhan - but also cites Hamed al-Ali, a former leader in the salafi movement and an influential frequent contributor to jihadist forums, claiming that the results demonstrated the widespread public acceptance of Islamist discourse among Kuwaitis. I suspect this will be debated intensely in the coming months.
In general, though, I'd suggest that a decline in the MB-style Islamic Constitutional Movement and a rise in the power of the salafis and independents is certainly relevant in the context of the questions I posed last week about the "Muslim Brotherhood firewall": such salafis would have both a different ideological stance and less of an organizational component. Local context matters, and I doubt that it is fair to just describe all of the salafis as "radical" as some of the news coverage has, but there are clear doctrinal and organizational and political differences between them and the ICM. Look forward to hearing from Kuwait specialists on the topic - comments or emails!
UDPATE: for more, see Nathan Brown's guest post "Do the salafis really want to party?"