Book Review: Stories of Democracy

Stories of Democracy. Columbia University Press. 2000.

The term ‘democracy’ is hardly constant. The concept is fluid and shifting, meaning different things for different countries, and constantly progressing. Perhaps this is even more true for the idea of democracy in the Middle East, a region rife with dictators, oppression, and corruption, and yet one incredibly tumultuous, whose history is replete with stories of coups, revolt, and change.

The current Arab Awakening is better proof than any other that for a region incessantly labeled traditional, reactionary, and even primitive, the Middle East is hungry for democracy.

Mary Ann Tetreault, in Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait (PDF), delves into one country’s idea of and struggle for democracy. The book is a descriptive, not prescriptive one, covering Kuwait’s essential moments and battles for power instead of laying didactic groundwork for Kuwait’s government and citizens to come. Then again, history can sometimes be the best blueprint, or guidebook, for the future. If Tetreault realized this more fully, she could have written an incredibly important book, instead of only an incredibly interesting one.

In her first two chapters, Tetreault speaks generally on concepts of democracy, emphasizing their variability and constructing the foundation for more specific discussions to come. She then introduces Kuwait, currently ruled by a constitutional monarchy, as a country whose stories, or ‘myths,’ of democracy are instructive, complex, and unique. She notes Kuwait’s interactions and role-playing in international diplomacy and geopolitics, but she makes clear she is far more interested in the “repeated clashes between would-be citizens demanding civil and political rights and what has become over the period a deeply entrenched albeit variably autocratic ‘traditional’ regime” (2).

Then she moves to Kuwait’s major political factions, key power-struggle events, and its massive national oil company, the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC). She only zooms in from there, never looking back, and never properly returning to the broader scope that affords useful analysis, reflection, and context.

Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

Tetreault’s fifth chapter, a discussion of the positive effects of the Iraqi invasion and ensuing American intervention on Kuwait’s democratic movements, best encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses that pervade the book.

Tetreault compellingly argues that the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, something we typically consider an affront to freedom and self-determination, actually empowered Kuwaitis struggling for democracy in several ways. For one, the invasion highlighted many failures of the autocratic regime. Most Kuwaitis blamed their own government for imprudent oil policies and inept diplomacy that incurred Iraq’s invasion. Furthermore, Kuwaiti military and police forces appeared entirely unprepared for the attack and unable to defend when it arrived.

Secondly, the occupation and subsequent liberation movement empowered Kuwaiti exiles, who used the fight for independence from Iraq to fight for independence from authoritarianism. Though the government reneged on several promises it made to dissidents, some tangible results prevailed: namely, a parliamentary election. The vote for the National Assembly, while still under dictatorial rule, reversed many gains of the unconstitutional coup two years prior.

Finally, Tetreault argues that the Iraqi occupation fundamentally changed the way many Kuwaitis thought about their nation and the prospect for democracy. “Within days” of the invasion, Tetreault writes, “groups of Kuwaitis coalesced into pockets of organized resistance. Women and men, Shi’a and Sunna, the not-so-rich and well-to-do, demonstrated, plotted, and engaged in commando operations…” (pg. 88). She continues to extensively document a people inspired to reject both occupiers and the repressive government that allowed them in, a people whose post-colonial philosophy was: “We aren’t afraid of the Sabah. We survived Saddam Hussein” (pg. 98). The chapter is thoughtful and in-depth, quoting at length from first-hand liberation fighters and conveying their sentiments with ease.

What it immediately lacks, though, is regional context. Upon finishing the Iraq invasion chapter, I hoped Tetreault would then compare Kuwait to other countries in the MENA, where colonialism and independence movements have run rampant. Instead, the book quickly moves along, examining the 1992 elections.

Kuwait and Algeria

Historical analysis shows how valuable such a comparison would be. Take Algeria, for example, and that nation’s struggle against more than a hundred years of French colonialism. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians spent eight grueling years battling both the French occupiers and a sizable band of French-loyalist Algerians, finally achieving independence in 1962. But instead of turning anti-colonialism into democracy, post-colonial Algerians supported Ahmed Ben Bella and a despotic constitution in 1963, banning opposition parties and only allowing the National Liberation Front (FLN). Ben Bella was thereafter removed and exiled, but Algeria remained a one-party state for decades.

Far worse, however, than the lack of multiple-party elections, was how Algerians treated opposition after ousting the French. Little dissent was tolerated. Algeria became jingoistic, marginalizing anyone who wasn’t Algerian, Arab, and Muslim, and repressing those who spoke out against the FLN.

The comparison isn’t perfect. For one, France colonized Algeria for more than a century, whereas Iraq was only in Kuwait for seven months. In Kuwait, the United States intervened and drove the Iraqis back to Baghdad, while Algeria fought entirely for itself. Both occupiers left in similar fashion though: as the French left Algeria, they burned vineyards, spitefully ruining whatever they could; in Kuwait, retreating Iraqis blew up nearly 800 oil wells, leaving behind an environmental and economic disaster that Kuwait wouldn’t recover from for more than a decade. The way these independence movements occurred has many obvious ramifications on the nature of politics and dissent following their major successes.

But the differences between them don’t obviate meaningful, if simple, lessons to be learned in contrasting how the two nations, or Kuwait and another previously occupied country, responded to independence. Kuwait’s post-occupation empowerment, especially immediately upon Saddam’s departure, was a vital turning point in Kuwait’s struggle for democracy that would signal progressive change much further down the line.

This is clear in the results of the election that followed. More than half of those elected in the 1992 parliamentary vote had run opposing the government and promising reform (pg. 128). Even at the time, this was an incredible sign for democracy to come. Modern-day Kuwait, it should be noted, is not a paradigm for human rights and freedom. However, it has signed the several of the most important international human rights treaties (unlike, say, the United States). More importantly, Kuwait is now a country where the battle for democracy is a multifarious one, instead of a series of one-sided dictatorial repression.

In Algeria, it was Ben Bella’s rise to prominence and then to power that would symbolize the way it would respond to opposition for decades to come. It wasn’t until early 1992, three full decades after Algerian independence, that a worthy opposition movement began to take hold. And when it did, the Algerian government lashed back like never before. When the Islamic Salvation Front (SIF) made electoral gains, the military staged a violent coup that provoked ten bloody, vicious years of civil war, killing at least 100,000. The war disillusioned Algerians even further, spawning a mass of jaded, educated “hittistes,” who were then recruited to later opposition groups.

Had Algeria’s citizenry responded the way Kuwait’s did, inspired and active instead of embittered and hateful, they would have been far more prepared for the uphill battle against authoritarianism than they were. Perhaps the civil war could have been avoided. The Algerians’ independence fight was far more draining, economically and psychologically and otherwise, but the comparison still elucidates fateful differences.

Arab Awakening

This chapter’s failure to draw adequately on surrounding contextual and regional references is the book’s problem as well. Whole books could be written, and surely have, about the Iraqi invasion and the effects it had on Kuwaiti internal politics and democratic struggle. But by merely touching on the topic and then moving chronologically along, Tetreault leaves something to be desired. Perhaps, though, this criticism seems unfair, given Tetreault’s stated aims: to document the roller coaster of successes, pitfalls, and cumbersome drama that is the struggle for Kuwaiti democracy. She set out to cover internal politics and does just that.

However, especially in light of what has been called the Arab Spring, or the Jasmine Revolutions, a greater scope seems essential to understanding democracy. These have been democratic movements of people of all ages, religions, classes, and creeds. They have undoubtedly learned from and been inspired by each other as well: Tunisia’s ousting of dictator Ben Ali showed Egyptians what it took to get rid of Hosni Mubarak. Some of the most successful and influential struggles against autocrats are also rejections of nationalism and Islamic theocracy, problems that befall the MENA throughout. Widening the lens allows for these types of connections to be made and lessons to be learned. Tetreault is intent on readers understanding Kuwait’s uniqueness, but the sentiment feels myopic, or incomplete. For all their differences, these nations have a lot to learn from each other.

Still, for what it is, Tetreault’s Stories of Democracy remains a constructive glimpse into the history and character of a country’s struggle to free itself from the ever tightening binds of oppression. Context is ours to study, and ours to bring to what we read and see in the world. Maybe Tetrault understands this, even if she doesn’t quite act on it, for her story about Kuwait is, as she writes, “also one about how we understand social contracts in political systems from North America to Southeast Asia. … [a story] about citizenship and democracy anywhere and at any time” (pg. 13).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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