May 17, 2017

Kuwaitis Debate Power over Citizenship

Prominent Kuwaiti opposition figure Musallam Al-Barrak celebrates his release after serving a two-year prison sentence for publicly criticizing the emir, April 21. (AP Photo/Jaber Abdulkhaleg)
by Abdullah Alkhonaini

Over the past five years, Kuwait has witnessed considerable internal political confrontation. In 2012 the opposition-driven Parliament was dissolved by court order. In an appeal for national unity, the emir took the opportunity to change the voting system to a single vote per person, ending the coalition politics employed by the opposition political societies. Since then, tension between the opposition and the government has been escalating. In 2014 and 2015, the executive branch, through the minister of interior, withdrew the citizenship of 33 people. These actions were justified by administrative reasons: the holding of dual citizenship, which is not uncommon but is illegal under Kuwaiti law or providing false identification at the time of obtaining citizenship. Still many of those affected are associated with the political opposition, including the spokesman of the leading opposition movement. The withdrawal has affected a larger circle of extended families, as the questioning of one’s nationality sometimes results in the revocation of Kuwaiti citizenship from one’s children and grandchildren. The economic and personal costs of these actions are enormous, and provide the government with a powerful deterrent to criticism.

Who Has the Authority over Nationality?

This current issue of citizenship withdrawal is different than the ongoing issue of the bidun, or stateless, in Kuwait. In this case, the affected people held Kuwaiti citizenship, which was then withdrawn by the government, rendering them stateless. Emiri Decree No. 15 of 1959 on Kuwaiti Citizenship clearly states that citizenship is a sovereign matter. It gives authority to the executive branch to withdraw citizenship (based on Articles 11, 13, and 14) if it involves the higher interests of the state or its national security, or if the individual in question is determined to be undermining the social or economic system. It provides no appeal of those decisions. The law distinguishes two different actions: withdrawal applies to an individual and his offspring, while dropping applies to the individual only. In the cases of Ahmad Jabr al-Shemmeri, the former owner of a newspaper and television channel associated with the opposition, and Abdullah al-Barghash, a former member of parliament, the withdrawal of their citizenship affected some 60 members of their families.

Election Promises

The revocation of citizenship was highlighted during the November 2016 parliamentary election campaign, which marked the return of the opposition after a four-year electoral boycott. Opposition candidates won nearly half of the seats, and during the first three months of the newly elected parliament, many members of parliament (MPs) proposed amendments to the 1959 Citizenship Decree, to place limitations on withdrawals and tolerate dual citizenship. Another suggestion was to amend the Administrative Court Law in order to extend its authority over decisions on withdrawal, dropping, or loss of citizenship. This last proposal drew the initial support of the opposition, along with liberals, and some independent MPs.

Under mounting political pressure, and counseled by parliamentary allies, Kuwait’s emir sought to preempt the opposition’s initiative. In March he pledged to re-evaluate the withdrawal of citizenship in some cases. After meeting with the emir, the former opposition spokesman, Saad Al-Ajmi, and Shemmeri both announced that they would drop the cases they had brought up in court in light of the emir’s promises to reinstate their citizenship. However, while this issue has been widely discussed in the media, no official steps have been taken to restore citizenship in these cases, nor have there been any official statements clarifying when and how such cases will be addressed.

The Balance of Power between the National Assembly and Council of Ministers

Following the emir’s moves, the Council of Ministers established a committee to investigate all the executive branch decrees that involved withdrawal, drop, or loss of citizenship since the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. The members of the committee include representatives of the Council of Ministers, Legal Advice and Legislation Agency, and the General Directorate of Citizenship and Passports within the Ministry of Interior, all of which are under the executive branch. This new committee is headed by an advisor in the Emiri Diwan, Ali al-Rashed, who was formerly head of parliament. Some members of the Kuwaiti media and parliament criticized this move as a violation of the separation of powers. They suggested that an alternative branch should investigate the cases, such as the judiciary. Shia MPs objected that this new committee is restricting its investigation to post-liberation cases only, noting that some Shia Kuwaitis had their citizenship withdrawn in the 1980s following the Iranian Revolution. This led the head of the committee to announce that the committee would look into all cases, but prioritize those from the post-liberation era. Rashed later announced after the deadline set by the committee that they received 184 applications for review.

The effect of these emiri and executive branch initiatives was to blunt the momentum behind the parliamentary amendment of the Administrative Court Law. While the opposition was optimistic about passing the amendment, during the parliamentary session on April 11, the proposal was rejected. Sixteen ministers, voting ex-officio, and 20 MPs voted against the changes, while 27 MPs voted in favor.

Also in that session, several MPs provided details about hundreds of cases in which individuals provided false identification at the time of obtaining citizenship. They urged the establishment of a parliamentary committee to investigate those cases, and the government supported the move. With the defeat of the Administrative Court Law amendment in Parliament, members of the opposition changed tack, and filed for the questioning of the prime minister for violations of law and abuse of power in his interpretation and application of the law by issuing decrees and revoking citizenship.

Social Fragmentation

The opposition’s efforts to constrain the government’s ability to withdraw citizenship has been hampered by a lack of social unity. The campaign to amend the Administrative Court Law was defeated in large part due to the decision of five Shia MPs to vote against the proposal. Earlier that week, the parliamentary committee studying the proposal refused to include the right to appeal an executive decision to deny or withdraw permission for places of worship within the Administrative Court Law amendments. Shia mosques and Husainiya need approval by the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, whose decision is final and can’t be challenged in court. Not including the Shia parliamentarians’ amendment to the Administrative Court Law played a major role in the motion’s defeat, and both sides ultimately lost in their efforts to amend the Administrative Court’s control over decisions related to sovereignty.

The sectarian dimension is not the only social division affecting the citizenship campaign. As the parliamentary opposition, independent MPs, representatives of liberal parties, and some nongovernmental organizations campaigned for the judiciary to have a say in citizenship withdrawals, others established a lobby group to serve as a voice against any change in the citizenship law. Group 80, led by Adel al-Zawawi and Saleh al-Fadala (a former MP, and the current head of the Central System for the Remedy of Situations of Illegal Residents), represents the segment of society that wants to restrict citizenship to the original Kuwaitis. Group 80’s campaign was highly circulated on social networking platforms. The group also met with the emir, and the heads of both the executive and legislative branches prior to the parliamentary voting session that ended in the rejection of the proposal.

What’s Next?

Although the opposition succeeded in promoting the issue of citizenship in the media and Parliament, it was outmaneuvered by the emir and his allies in the executive branch. The government played it smartly and succeeded.

In late April, the head of the political opposition, Musallam Al-Barrak, was released from prison after serving two years for criticizing and challenging the emir in a public speech. In his first speech after leaving prison, he argued that men and women are equal before the law and that everyone has the right to appeal sovereign decisions in the Administrative Court, whether against citizenship revocation or the denial of places of worship. His remarks were seen as the beginning of a new chapter for the opposition.

Furthermore, legislative change through the Parliament isn’t completely out of the question. The opposition can again propose amendments to the Administrative Court Law in the next parliamentary term. If the campaign can join forces with other stakeholders opposing the change, especially becoming more inclusive toward Shia MPs, they may be able to gain approval of the amendments, and provide an important check on the ability of the executive to use the revocation of citizenship as a weapon against its political opposition.

Abdullah Alkhonaini is a Leaders for Democracy Fellow working with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.