KUWAIT CITY – For years, opposition lawmakers in Kuwait's parliament have been the most aggressive and combative in the Gulf — routinely demanding the prime minister and others face questioning over alleged corruption and abuses of power.
Now, with a political crisis deepening over parliament and upcoming elections, Kuwait's rising anti-government forces are applying even greater pressure on the Western-allied ruling system and its ability to fully control affairs in one of the Pentagon's key allies in the Gulf.
A full-blown uprising in Kuwait is still unlikely since the ruling family remains the source of government payouts and generous cradle-to-grave benefits that are linchpins of the nation's social pact. But opposition groups led by conservative Islamists have tasted power and want more, raising critical questions such as how much they could influence Kuwait's close relations with the West and try to further limit free expression.
It also sends alarm through the other tightly ruled Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates, where rulers fear possible rising clout from Islamist factions inspired by the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt's elections.
"The more power (the Islamists) have, the more tension (there) will be in the region," said Eman al-Bedah, a columnist for the liberal-leaning Aljarida newspaper.
Protests in recent weeks have grown in size and rage as Kuwait spent months adrift in a complex political crisis. It culminated last week with the country's ruler disbanding parliament and setting the stage for new elections with Islamists and their tribal allies primed to make another strong showing.
The emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, has yet to set the date for voting, sparking an outcry from opposition forces. On Monday, protesters clashed with security forces as some demonstrators hurled shoes — a powerful insult in the Arab world.
A former lawmaker, Musallam al-Barrack, also broke Kuwaiti political taboos by directly warning the 83-year-old emir that the country is demanding elections and would not tolerate "autocratic rule."
"We won't let you rule this country on your own," he shouted to a crowd of more than 8,000 protesters.
Al-Barrack also called for a constitutional monarchy, which would eliminate the ruling family monopoly on key posts such as prime minister and possibly open the door for opposition forces to control affairs.
Kuwait's parliament is the most politically outspoken among the Gulf Arab states, but criticism is typically confined to Cabinet ministers and not the emir.
"For the first time in Kuwait's history, the people are this time actually directly blaming the emir for what's happening in the country. This is historic," said Saad bin Teflah, publisher of the pro-opposition online Alaan newspaper and a former minister of information.
Oil-rich Kuwait has not faced widespread unrest since the Arab Spring uprisings erupted last year across the Middle East, but political battles and labor upheavals have stalled many development plans and rewritten the rules on political dissent. Last year, dozens of anti-government protesters muscled their way into parliament during a debate over efforts to question the prime minister about corruption allegations.
Kuwait also is one of America's most strategic Gulf military allies, with its importance to Washington rising sharply after the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in December. It is now the hub for U.S. ground forces in the Gulf region, where the U.S. and its Arab allies seek to counter Iran's military buildup.
Kuwait's political showdowns, which have simmered for years, moved to a new level in February elections after Islamists and their backers gained a majority in the 50-seat parliament. Their demands came quickly: Key posts in the Cabinet and more say in the appointments of the other ministers.
The stunned establishment tried to turn back the clock. The emir disbanded the opposition-led parliament and challenged voting district changes that appeared to give anti-government forces an edge. A court in September tossed out the government appeal and set in motion the stumble toward new elections that are widely expected to fall in the oppositions' favor.
Under Kuwait's rules, the emir has to set the date for elections by early December — 60 days after disbanding parliament.
Opposition groups worry, however, that the government could try to amend the voting rules to give them an edge.
Earlier this week, protesters chanted against any attempts to stage a "robbery" of their rights. In the crowd, too, were signs of unusual alliances developing: Liberal-minded Kuwaitis who have sided — for the moment — with the Islamists and other traditional factions.
They are deeply at odds over social issues such as dating, music and women's rights. Liberal groups loudly denounced efforts by Islamists to censor art and books deemed offensive to Islam. But some liberals are drawn to the Islamists call for sweeping political reforms and allegations that the monarchy is corrupt and out of touch.
Bassam Al-Asoussi, a member of the liberal Democratic Forum political bloc, believes many liberals will regret throwing their support behind Islamists if they return to control parliament and begin to push for tighter social controls and anti-Western measures.
"Yes, the government has many shortcomings indeed, but (the opposition leaders) aren't the people who will save the country," he said. "They are regressive, not progressive.."