(MENAFN - Arab Times) PROBABLY the youngest force on the political platform in Kuwait, Al-Tayyar Al-Taqadomi Al-Kuwaiti (the Kuwaiti Progressive Current) is set up against enormous odds. As one of the first self-proclaimed leftist oppositional organizations in Kuwait at a point where the discussions within the political arena center on national forces, Islamists and liberals warring it out, theirs is a tricky position.
Dhari W. Al-Rujaib, the general coordinator, although enthusiastic to answer our questions, seemed to shy away a little from such terms as "leftist". Yet the substance of his answers seems to render these reservations obsolete. Here is perhaps one of the first views that has fundamentally challenged the current superseding structures in Kuwait, as well as its relation to the larger framework of things (i.e. internationally).
More importantly, it is perhaps telling of a new current of young people who are becoming increasingly mobilized in Kuwait, and are now being given the outlets to do so, after a long period of stagnation in party politics.
We sat down and questioned Dhari Al-Rujaib on the vision and specifics of the party at their headquarters in Midan Hawally.
Question: When was the movement established?
Answer: It was established in February 2011, as a necessity brought forth by the current situation in the country, especially after the escalation of the political crisis in 2008.
Q: Was it created in response to the economic crisis?
A: No, the Progressive Current is a continuation of the progressive ideology which began in Kuwait in the 1950s. And since then, there have been progressive or leftist groups or organizations, and there was a natural evolution of progressive ideology. Progressivism itself is an umbrella term; it doesn't delineate a specific ideology; there are Arab nationalists, Nasserists, democratic progressivism, etc.
But it wasn't until 1991, after the liberation, that there came about the coalition of progressive forces under the bastion of the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum. It continued until the appearance of divisions in terms of economic visions, and interpreting the reality, and in terms of the Forum's engagement with the simple workers' concerns over wages and so forth. As such, along with the economic crisis, and the appearance of their development and privatization plans, the differences became very apparent. Of course we respect them greatly, and we continue to coordinate certain things with them. But, the best step for progress and the continuation of political and economic work, be it nationalist, democratic or progressive is to have a definitive line.
If you say that there is a percentage of people who fall under the term middle class, and another percentage that are business owners, by far the larger segment of society would be those who do not own the means to their livelihood; they own only their wages. And of course there are those who are below middle class, and those who are marginalized and those of limited income. For those reasons, what we focus on in Al Tayyar is socio-economic justice, equality and equal opportunities for all.
Q: Are you a movement or a political party?
A: Let's say that hopefully, now that the parliament has raised the issue of the law for political organizations, there may be steps in a different direction. I mean currently, as you know, political organizations exist as a reality, but they aren't legally recognized. We have organizers, and we're working on taking premeditated steps. We call ourselves a current, but people can view us as a political party.
Q: Does anyone from Al Tayyar hold any positions in the current parliament?
A: No, we don't have a representative in parliament, but it was our job during the elections to create a program which speaks about political reforms and which serves the people's interests, so that the voter can have a means by which to measure which candidate best represents them. To increase political awareness, and at the same time to show that these are the stances we are going to take in the future, and this is our vision for political reform in Kuwait.
Q: But there are hopes to later reach parliamentary positions?
A: Of course. The existence of the law for political organizations is a huge step for the introduction of political mobility, and in turn a step towards real reform and change.
Q: I read that you adhere to leftist views. How far left are we talking here?
A: This differs from person to person. Does the fact that we believe in equality and socio-economic justice make us leftists? Let's talk about the terms left and right and their origins; in the Kuwaiti parliament we'd refer to the opposition as the left and the supporters as the right. If you want to describe the left as it exists in Kuwait right now, then it depends on the person, especially since we are a public movement. So, yes, you can say that we are a movement with leftist leanings. But I can't say definitively that all the members of the movement are on the left.
Q: How do you feel these views work within a Kuwaiti context?
A: When Kuwaiti society was formed, it came about as a residential community, unlike countries like Egypt which have historical civilizations and progression. Within this community, and with Kuwait's evolution and the use of foreign expertise, progressivism is not a new ideology in Kuwait. Before the Iraqi invasion, the progressive forces supported the national liberation movements and the evolvement of society along with socio-economic justice, along with the idea of there being more socio-economic gains for Arab, neighboring and friendly states. It was an existing force, especially since Kuwait, with its history and its culture, has had a lot of people who have read and educated themselves. Nowadays we have the internet, people can reach a lot of information and literature on politics and economics. Now, you can sit with any young person and find that he reads and is informed and would be able to discuss politics with you amongst other things.
Q: What kinds of ideals and/or policies is the movement modeled on?
A: The movement was founded as a representative of the working class, the local classes, the lower-income classes and the marginalized people. And of course, one of the most important things is that we reject any discrimination against women. We work for achieving young people's demands, and to find a national economy which is practically productive. These are the main aspects of the movement, and I think they're all summarized within our slogan; "Progress, Freedom, Socio-Economic Justice".
Q: What is your vision for Kuwait in the future?
A: What we hope for is that Kuwait moves in the direction of a more parliamentary system, under the larger constitutional emirate; for there to be an elected Prime Minister, for there to be one electoral circle, the existence of parties, changing the voting age to 18, allowing soldiers to vote, an increase in socio-economic gains and the introduction of welfare for the different existing social classes. We can talk about rent, housing and inflation - these are all existing issues which nobody is addressing currently. What we hope for is that Kuwait becomes a democratic country built on the foundations of socio-economic justice, and in light of the existence of political pluralism, of course.
Q: How do you intend to affect change?
A: We have three methods which we use primarily. These are efforts to create public opinion and work through the people, coordinating with national, democratic and progressive forces in Kuwait, and seminars and public speeches as well as the literature produced by the movement to create awareness. And the main factor of public efforts is communicating with the people, without excluding any area in Kuwait, because in the end, that which brings us together as Kuwaitis is our constitutional citizenship.
Q: I know that you have previously expressed condemnation for the treatment of the Bedoun community in Kuwait. How do you propose to solve this issue?
A: There have been several proposals, and the solution has been apparent since the inception of the crisis. What we have proposed is a developmental, practical and humane solution, starting with the naturalization of the children of Kuwaiti women, and those denoted in the 1965 census, in addition to soldiers and the children of martyrs, as well as those who are assets to Kuwait; that is those who have a certain set of expertise or have provided Kuwait with something, and of course those that were born and raised in Kuwait and have no other home. And we are working on pushing Kuwait to ratify all the different UN treaties, as well as the human rights documents in order to live in a more humanitarian society.
Q: One of your main stated concerns as a movement is the Kuwaiti working class. How do you feel about the treatment of expatriate laborers?
A: Of course any change to the advantage of Kuwaiti citizens will help the non-Kuwaiti expatriates live in good conditions for the temporary period that they live in Kuwait.
Q: What is your reaction to the statement issued recently by Osama Al-Munawer about the destruction of churches in Kuwait?
A: Essentially, when it comes to this issue, constitutionally the freedom of religion, prayer and belief are guaranteed. And as a movement, we support these existing freedoms. And in any case, we have said that we reject the use of religion for political purposes. Unfortunately, these things which have taken place, and the claims of banning the building of churches is no more than an instance of social hypocrisy and opportunism to hurt others. Let's be realistic; Kuwait has Sunnis and Shiites, and it has a lot of minorities, there are even Christian Kuwaitis, as well as Kuwaitis of other sects and beliefs.
Q: How do you feel about the dominance of the Islamists currently in parliaments and in the country?
A: As a progressive movement, we believe that the main battle is not against the Islamists. The main battle is against the authoritarian approach, the existing "Sheikhist" approach; and the inherent contradiction that exists in between this approach and the evolvement of Kuwait, and building a modern democratic state of Kuwait.
As for the Islamists, they managed to succeed because they were able to communicate and relate with the people, and, unfortunately, the national and democratic forces in Kuwait have begun to distance themselves from the people's concerns, and they have begun to adopt an elitist rhetoric, and to isolate themselves.
For us, it's our duty to serve these people. At the time of the liberation, the main organizations in Kuwait were formed, but workers' syndicates or unions were not established. The poor and underprivileged people don't receive education and don't have any knowledge of the existing organizations. A few figures from the national forces have started to alert them that they, as workers, can do certain things which will help them unite to achieve their existing demands.
If we look at the rhetoric of the period from the 60s to the 80s, it was an excellent national rhetoric. It suggested that any attempt to breach socio-economic gains or human rights and freedoms would face a very harsh rebuttal. Nowadays, there are obvious economic problems, such as addressing the privatization plans and development plans. The Advising Committee's report has attempted to provide solutions to the current economic crisis.
Unfortunately, rather than apply these solutions, they turn the discussion to talk about the second article of the constitution and the Sharia as the source of legitimacy and so on. Since the constitution was written up until today, there have been seven attempts to change Article Two of the constitution and it's never happened. And amending the article is not going to have any effect on the reality in Kuwait. Of course, when you look at the society, the vast majority of the people are Muslims, so of course they'll agree that Sharia is the main source of legitimization. But when you go back and actually apply this on the ground, you'll find that Sharia is employed in just one case, and that is in the law concerning Personal Affairs.
Q: What are your views on Kuwait's economy and the ways in which it can be bettered?
A: The economic system in Kuwait is a rentier state, which is distorted and which follows the existing international system that controls the world economy. Kuwait's role is simply to extract oil and sell it. Kuwait has the financial means to advance this economy, through the angle of espousing national products, the establishment of national factories and companies for the production of primary oil products.
There is agricultural land that can be developed, there are spaces that can be used for electricity, we can make use of investments. There is an existing private sector, but unfortunately, this sector is a parasitic one, and is maintained solely upon governmental deals and projects. Accordingly, water and electricity are subsidized to the companies at a lower rate than to civilians, as such, it's not a real private sector, and there needs to be development of this sector to promote real productivity.
It's not enough to simply buy franchises and bring them here; the private sector needs to have a position of social responsibility towards the people, and to create opportunities for employment of the national workforce. The private sector should be subject to incremental taxing rates on their profits in order to take part in the state's budget and development.
There are numerous channels for economic reform in Kuwait, but it requires a lot of premeditation, as well as a sincere effort. Kuwait was built on the basis of the welfare state, i.e. a state which leans towards socio-economic justice in a definitive way. But unfortunately, they've turned into stereotypes; the people are rampant consumers, they don't care about anything but brands, if they have one or two days off they go off and travel, and if they don't have money they take out a loan and travel, or buy a very expensive car.
Thus, within the economic reform, we as Kuwaitis need to educate ourselves outside of the consumerist culture that exists, and to find alternative sources of income. These could be tourism, or investment. Kuwait could even be, not necessarily a financial center, but at least a center for investments which can be obtained and used to develop the country.
Q: What do you feel are the main factors that stand in the way of Kuwait achieving its full potential?
A: The main elements are individuals who stand against what we are suggesting, and at the same time if the Political Organizations law is not applied, this will be a factor which obstructs the way. As you know, the current parliamentary system is for independent runners, so you have 50 persons, 50 ideologies, 50 directions and each person has their own agenda.
Once there are political organizations, and these political blocs enter the parliamentary system, there will be a firmer, more solid set of issues at hand. There will be revised plans and programs on the table. Let's say that I'm a representative and I say that I have a program to put forth; I'll never be able to apply it in view of the classist, tribal and regional fragmentation that occurs.
Q: What are your observations on the general political awareness of average Kuwaitis?
A: 2011 was largely saturated with political mobilization and the issues that appeared in the forefront. This mobilization worked to change the political awareness of the average Kuwaiti, and I saw it personally in a high school students' strike. There were those who said that these are just students who don't want to go to school or they're troublemakers and so on.
But when the head of security goes to evacuate the strike in five minutes, and a student comes up and says to him that his presence there is a guaranteed constitutional and democratic right and that they will not leave, and any attempt to evacuate this gathering is considered a breach of my constitutional rights, whilst he is a student; that means that obviously this mobilization has had an effect.
However, the mobilization was spontaneous in 2011, so the formation of a political awareness occurred through trial and error. The existence of political organizations and parties will help to organize this mobility in the direction of achieving the goals at hand. When the privatization plan was proposed, the national forces coordinated together; the progressive forces with the worker's syndicates and individuals, in order to oppose this law.
We won't romanticize our efforts and say that we knocked down the law, the law passed, and would have done so irrespective of whether or not we took action, but the action we took and educating people as to the dangers of privatization has helped us de-privatize education, healthcare and oil, which are the mainstays of a social welfare state.
So, we promoted organized mobilization during the period of privatization, we would do so using strong premeditated steps. Conversely, spontaneous mobilization can be stopped in many ways, such as intimidation methods, and spreading rumors that everything will be ok and the next day the government will be dissolved.
In the 2011 period, they claimed that they would dissolve the council of ministers, but they didn't, yet whenever they said they would dissolve the government, things would calm down. But the fourth time they suggested this, the people had gained the awareness that they weren't serious about this matter, and that there was no way to change the prevailing situation except through the people's will.
Q: In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues in Kuwait that need to be dealt with?
A: The main issues are, to begin with, the unemployment problem, with constantly rising, since 2010 at least. The number of unemployed people is over 25,000 who have been laid off in the private sector, and they're likely to increase.
There's also the housing issue, which is an issue throughout Kuwait, and is not limited to just Kuwaitis. In Kuwait, the area that is built up is 6% of the total, and the lack of movement outside that area is raising the price of real estate and rent. No one is able to buy a house using their personal income, the government is not providing a means of resolving this issue.
Currently, there are around 90,000 requests in line awaiting a chance to get a house. In addition, this number has increased when the door was opened to Kuwaiti divorcees and widows. This is one of the real issues here; inflation and merchants' greed is a huge issue.
There's no price regulation, and the inflation that's taking place, I wouldn't say that it's Kuwait's fault, but rather it's the fault of the entire world system.
But mostly, it's the social and economic issues which affect the local segments of society, and which require a resolution from us.
The social segments are not a block that's existed since Kuwait was built till now; they are increasing in size, and the working class is growing, and the businessmen are decreasing relatively while the population rises. Without a practical solution, the crisis will continue in this way.
Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest human rights violations taking place in Kuwait now?
A: The (lack of) freedom of belief, discrimination against women and children's rights. A lot of children are being beaten and there's no law to stop it, and this deeply affects them psychologically. The right to citizenship for the stateless people is one. Also, Kuwait has a certain amount of space dedicated to personal freedoms, but all of them are based on certain preconditions, and so there needs to be a progression of these personal freedoms. For example, in the case of discrimination against women, they've been given political rights, but there are also civil rights, in addition to the fact that women can't take positions as judges, or high positions. Who gets to decide that a woman can or can't take a certain position? In the end, it should depend on equal opportunity; if a woman has the certification and experience required for the position, she deserves it, rather than appointing someone because of a wasta or because he knows so-and-so, so he's appointed to the position.
Dhari W. Al-Rujaib is the general coordinator of Al-Tayyar Al-Taqadomi Al Kuwaiti. He graduated from the Australian College of Kuwait, with a diploma in Business Management, and is currently employed at the Ministry of Education. He is a member of the Worker's Union and a committed social and political activist.