Demonstrators in Kuwait defied their powerful emir on Sunday when about 50,000 citizens gathered outside the country's parliament building to protest a controversial new electoral law.
The demonstration commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Kuwaiti constitution. It also came shortly before a pivotal parliamentary election, scheduled for Dec. 1.
Kuwait is ruled by Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who was appointed in 2006 via a system of dynastic rule. His family has been in power since the 18th century, but the constitution adopted in 1962 established a constitutional monarchy that has given voters some say in their governance.
In previous parliamentary elections, each voter could choose four parliamentary candidates at a time. Because of the controversial change requested by Sabah in October, however, each voter may now pick only one.
Opposition activists say the change will result in less representation by opposition politicians.
Addressing the protesters on Sunday, Khaled al-Sultan, a former member of parliament, told them that “the law aims at preventing Kuwaiti popular participation in governance ... and to establish autocratic rule and exploit the country's resources," according to Agence France-Presse via Google.
Although the Sabah dynasty wields ultimate control over Kuwait's electoral system, the country is home to the most participatory political system on the Arabian Peninsula. Its parliament is directly elected, and officials often criticize the ruling family.
But the emir freely exercises his power to dissolve the parliament, which he has done on four separate occasions since 2006.
Sabah has plenty of reason to fear a political sea change in this small oil-rich country. Parliamentary elections have increasingly favored Islamist and opposition candidates, making it clear that a growing faction of the electorate is hungry for change.
Regional unrest raises the stakes. The past year has already seen a popular uprising in Bahrain, which was suppressed. Yemen is plagued by violence between the U.S.-backed government and terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda. The other peninsular countries -- Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates -- remain relatively stable, although signs of dissent, however small, are evident in each.
Sunday’s protest was mostly peaceful, AFP reported, but other recent protests in Kuwait have resulted in dozens of injuries.