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KUWAIT CITY – Outside a palm-shaded villa in suburban Kuwait City, government security forces are taunted and defied each night by supporters of a former lawmaker ordered to prison for insulting the emir of this tiny nation.
It's a local showdown, but the anger and resistance outside the ex-parliament member's home has the potential to reverberate across the Gulf. Leaders in the region are increasingly boosting punishments for dissent and sharing intelligence, because they fear that Arab Spring-inspired calls for reforms will one day further challenge their fraternity of ruling clans.
The faceoff in Kuwait — essentially over the opposition leader's refusal to submit to his five-year jail sentence — has all the elements to become a test case over just how far Gulf states can restrict expression on the basis of ensuring national security and stability.
Western-backed Gulf leaders were never very generous with political openness. Nations such as the United Arab Emirates have banned political parties and nearly all kinds of protests. The Arab Spring has further reduced the boundaries of what is tolerated.
Dozens of people have been jailed across the Gulf after being accused of offending rulers or the governing systems, including a Qatari poet currently fighting a 15-year sentence.
In Bahrain — the site of the only major uprising in the Gulf — the Cabinet last week backed plans to impose jail terms of up to five years and possible fines of about $26,500 for defaming the king, the flag or coat of arms of the strategic island, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
In Kuwait, a new media law is under review that could reportedly levy fines of about $1 million for insulting the emir.
Late last year, the United Arab Emirates greatly expanded its media codes to include possible jail time for certain Internet posts, such as ones that mock the country's rulers or call for demonstrations.
Only Oman appears to be bucking the trend. Last month, authorities there issued blanket pardons to activists jailed for offending the nation's ruler or joining Arab Spring-influenced protests.
For decades, Kuwait's ruling Al Sabah family has allowed the most politically vibrant culture in the Gulf.
Opposition lawmakers have had a powerful forum in parliament, including making calls to investigate alleged government corruption and summoning officials to parliament to be questioned on policies.
Tension, however, spiked late last year after the emir ordered that voting procedures be changed. Opposition groups and others, who claimed the new rules were designed to strengthen pro-establishment candidates, decided to boycott the Dec. 1 parliamentary elections.
It was during a pre-election rally organized by the opposition that former lawmaker, Musallam al-Barrack, lashed out at the emir, saying he was trying to turn the country into an "autocracy." He complained that the election changes were made by decree rather than after a debate in parliament.
The emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, was selected by the ruling family in 2006 after an internal power struggle following the death of his predecessor.
Al-Barrack's comments led to Monday's conviction for insulting the emir and his five-year prison sentence.
Al-Barrack, however, has refused to go quietly.
Thousands of backers — mainly members of his powerful Mutairi tribe — have gathered each night outside his house and have vowed to protect him with their lives. Just hours after the sentence was issued, al-Barrack stood confidently in front of his admirers and police were unwilling to challenge the crowd and take him into custody.
"This sentence will never stop us from waging our war against corruption," al-Barrack said. "We will fight tooth and nail until we take back the dignity of our nation."
Then, one by one, backers read verbatim the speech that led to the charges in a clear show of defiance against the emir and the legal codes.
Al-Barrack's towering reputation among his tribe — some call him the "the conscience of the nation" for his battles with the ruling family — gives him more clout than bloggers and online activists also sentenced on similar charges of offending the emir. His defiance could embolden rights groups and others to rally harder against future cases.
Social media sites have been dominated by the standoff for days.
Parliament member Saleh Ashour wrote on his Twitter account: "To stop things from spinning out of control, please turn yourself in."
"You created this fate for yourself," he added. "You have to now face it."
Abdullah Zaman, an activist and host of a political show, tweeted: "Is what's taking place today a fight for reform, or a fight for the protection of one person?"
Al-Barrack's supporters were enraged when police broke into his house before dawn on Wednesday to find that he had already slipped away.
Hours before the arrest attempt, police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse crowds of al-Barrack supporters in a breakaway protest march from his villa. Kuwait's Information Ministry acknowledged that police entered his house, but strongly denied claims that "personnel attacked ladies and children."
Al-Barrack has played the role of radical before.
In 2011, he was a central figure in a political revolt targeting Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah that brought down the government.
He has cultivated an image as a supporter of expanded rights, but he also has favored strict interpretations of Islam that run counter to Kuwait's relatively open society. He has joined lawmakers in bringing gender segregation to schools and universities and in a failed bid to allow the death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.
For now, the showdown continues.
"I hope he turns himself in," said Information Minister Ahmad al-Humood Al Sabah. "He should respect the law and surrender, and then appeal the sentence."
Earlier this week, however, the website of the Information Ministry was hacked with the message: "Freedom to those imprisoned for their opinions."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.