KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaiti security forces detained at least five people, including the son of a prominent opposition figure, at an anti-government protest against possible changes to an election law, witnesses said on Tuesday.
Several people were hurt in skirmishes at the rally, attended by at least 5,000 people who defied a request by authorities to cancel Monday’s late evening demonstration.
In some of the strongest remarks by an opposition figure, former parliament member Musallam al-Barrak appealed directly to Kuwait’s leader to avoid “autocratic rule” in a speech to the crowd.
The son of Ahmed al-Saadoun, another prominent opposition leader and former parliament speaker, was among those detained during the protest near parliament, where several anti-government demonstrations have taken place in the past year.
Although Kuwait has avoided the mass Arab Spring protests seen elsewhere across the region tensions have escalated between the major oil producer’s elected parliament and the cabinet chosen by emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah’s prime minister.
Sheikh Sabah dissolved parliament last week and opposition figures say they fear the government will try to push through legislation before upcoming elections, including rules that could favour pro-government candidates in the polls.
“In the name of the nation, in the name of the people, we will not let you, your highness, ... practice autocratic rule,” Barrak, told the rally in a fiery speech addressed to the emir.
His remarks, including criticism of Kuwait’s leader, drew repeated chants of “We will not let you, we will not let you” from the crowd.
Analysts said the comments were unusually harsh in a country where criticism of the 83-year-old emir is extremely rare, and could spark a strong reaction from the authorities.
Although Kuwait allows more freedom of speech than some of its fellow Gulf states, the emir is seen as untouchable and is referred to as “immune and inviolable” in the constitution.
“The incendiary public accusations directed by Musallam al-Barrak at the emir of Kuwait are a milestone in the country,” Kristian Ulrichsen, expert on Gulf States at the London School of Economics, wrote on Twitter.
Opposition politicians and political activists called on the emir to set a date for upcoming parliamentary elections. In the past they have called for Kuwait’s cabinet to be drawn from the parliament rather than being hand-picked by the prime minister.
Witnesses at the protest, where police in full riot gear were deployed, said at least five protesters were arrested.
Security is tighter than usual in Kuwait as the country hosts Asian leaders for a summit. The emiri palace appealed to opposition lawmakers earlier this week to call off the protest.
Several people, including police, were injured when demonstrators clashed with police as they tried to spread into a barricaded street. Kuwaiti media published pictures of lines of police confronting Kuwaitis in white garb holding up railings.
“The government has not responded yet. This means we are entering into the start of a confrontation,” economic analyst Adnen al-Delemi said, adding that the government’s promised economic reforms were now a distant hope because of the turmoil.
Last year, scores of angry Kuwaitis stormed parliament demanding the resignation of the then prime minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, heralding one of the most serious recent crises in the country.
The latest turmoil began in June when Kuwait’s top court effectively annulled the most recent election, held in February, which gave mainly Islamist lawmakers a majority in parliament, and reinstated the previous, more government-friendly, assembly.
Sheikh Sabah ordered the dissolution of that parliament last week after months of political deadlock. Under the constitution, elections must be held within 60 days of dissolution, but there has been no date announced so far.
Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Andrew Torchia and Jon Boyle