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Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM)

The Islamic Constitutional Movement (Al-Haraka Al-Dusturi Al-Islamiyya), the political arm of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood, is one of, if not the, largest and most influential political associations in Kuwait. The Government does not officially recognize political parties. As the country begins to slowly implement political reforms, the ICM will play an increasingly important role in Kuwait's political life.

After a crushing electoral defeat in 2003, the ICM reorganized, emerging with a new, younger leadership and a reformist agenda. Since then, ICM leaders claim the organization's popularity and political influence has increased. Highlighting this growing influence, one of the ICM's top leaders, Dr. Ismail Al-Shatti, was appointed Minister of Communications in the recently-formed Cabinet. The ICM is one of the most vocal advocates of political reform in Kuwait. However, the organization supports very conservative social policies, such as the implementation of Islamic Shari'a.

It is important to recognize that the ICM's commitment to democracy appears genuine: the ICM, and previously the KMB, has participated in Kuwaiti politics peacefully for decades. Many of the ICM's social policies are more representative of the organization's conservative tribal base than they are of MB ideology. The notable exception is Islamic Shari'a which remains a contentious issue. Liberal and Shi'a political associations are not as organized and popular as the Islamists, and the increasingly influential (Islamist) Salafi associations are more reactionary and less compromising than the ICM.

The Muslim Brotherhood (Jamiyyat Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen), founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna, has branches in roughly 70 countries. The ICM was established as an independent, uniquely Kuwaiti political movement on March 30, 1991 by members of the KMB disillusioned by the international Muslim Brotherhood's (IMB) tacit support for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The ICM grew out of the Social Reform Society (SRS), a KMB-affiliated Islamic charity that still exists. The SRS was created in 1961 as a reconstituted version of the Islamic Guidance Society (IGS), the original MB organization in Kuwait. The IGS was established in the early 1950s by Abdul Aziz Al-Ali Al-Mutawa, the brother of the current SRS chairman and KMB spiritual mentor, Abdullah Al-Ali Al-Mutawa, but lost influence in the staunchly Arab nationalist Kuwait after the IMB supported an attack on Egyptian President Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1956. It was finally closed in 1959.

Initially, the SRS focused primarily on promoting its conservative social agenda. The organization lobbied successfully for the segregation of male and female students at Kuwait University and the prohibition of alcohol in Kuwait. Recruiting heavily among students, the SRS came to dominate the influential National Union of Kuwait Students (NUKS) and Kuwait University's Student Union, organizations the KMB continues to dominate. Gradually, the SRS's political influence also grew, particularly in the mid-1970s when the Government increased support for Islamist groups to balance the influence of Arab nationalists. Members of the SRS were included in the new Cabinet created after the Amir dissolved Parliament in 1976, and concessions were made to allow the organization more influence in zakat (religious tax) collection and Islamic banking, specifically in Kuwait's first Islamic bank, the Kuwait Finance House (KFH), established in 1977. This rising influence led to the election of two SRS members in the 1981 parliamentary elections. In successive Parliaments, the organization expanded its political influence, though it increasingly had to compete with Salafi groups for support among Islamists and Kuwait's conservative tribes.

The KMB reputedly split with the IMB after the Iraqi invasion, resulting in part in the establishment of the ICM. The ICM became the "political wing" of the KMB, and the SRS its "social wing." Through much of the 1990s, the ICM enjoyed strong political support and was represented in every Parliament. In the 2003 elections, however, the group suffered a crushing defeat, losing three of its five parliamentary seats. Prompted by its poor performance, the ICM dramatically altered its organizational structure, elected new, younger leaders, and adopted a "reform" agenda.

The ICM wields considerable political influence, as evidenced by the appointment of Dr. Ismail Al-Shatti, the head of the ICM's Ideological and Civilization Dialogue (i.e. Foreign Relations) Office, as Minister of Communications in the new Cabinet formed in February 2006. It is more difficult, however, to determine the organization's popular support. Since the Government does not recognize political parties, there is no official party registration and ICM leaders refuse to "guess" the number of ICM members. Some observers claim the ICM "dominates" the country, having substantial support in government ministries, academia, and the financial sector. These estimates are likely overblown.

Of the 13 ICM-supported candidates who ran in the 2003 parliamentary elections, including five incumbents, only Dr. Nasser Al-Sane and Mohammed Al-Basiri were re-elected, receiving 920 and 2,108 votes, respectively. This poor performance suggests the group's popular support is not as substantial as some claim. ICM officials argue, however, that elections are not indicative of the organization's true support due to Government manipulation of electoral outcomes. One credible liberal Kuwaiti political analyst estimated the number of ICM members to be "several hundred, but less than 500," plus a much larger, and unspecified, number of "supporters." The organization has 100 members who hold official positions, a likely indication that its base is substantially larger. The ICM is not known to be represented on the 16-member (six appointed and ten elected) Municipal Council.

After its electoral defeat in 2003, the ICM drastically restructured, creating a 70-member General Assembly in addition to its 21-member General Secretariat and nine-member Executive Secretariat (also called the Political Office). General Assembly members, including fifteen women, elect members of the General Secretariat, which in turn choose members of the Executive Secretariat. The General Secretariat, which includes three women, meets monthly and the Executive Secretariat weekly. According to ICM officials, this re-organization was intended in part to prepare the organization to become an official political party, once permitted by the Government.

The ICM also overhauled its leadership, replacing its older, more conservative leaders with younger, more "moderate" members. As of 2006, the ICM leadership included Secretary General Dr. Bader Al-Nashi (46), Official Spokesman Mohammed Al-Elaim (46), and Assistant Secretary General MP Dr. Nasser Al-Sane (51), who also serves as President of the Arab Organization of Parliamentarians against Corruption and Vice President of International Parliamentarians against Corruption, a Canada-based NGO.

In addition, the ICM had seven offices that assist the Executive Secretariat: the Political Relations Office headed by Mohammed Al-Dallal (41); the Ideological and Civilizational Dialogue Office headed by Dr. Ismail Al-Shatti (56) [this is the "Foreign Relations Office," but the ICM cannot adopt that name without provoking the Government], the Parliamentary Affairs Office headed by MP Mohammed Al-Basiri (51); the Women's Affairs Office headed by a woman, Suad Al-Jarallah; the Developmental Programs Office headed by MP Dr. Nasser Al-Sane; the Electoral Constituencies Office headed by Nasser Al-Khaldi; and the Public Relations and Media Office headed by Musaed Al-Thafiri.

Key policy positions, like the decision to oppose women's suffrage, are determined by a General Assembly vote and then referred to the General and Executive Secretariats for approval. More routine decisions are made by the Secretariats. ICM leaders claim all decisions are made internally by the ICM, not the IMB. On more controversial issues, the ICM engages both Kuwaiti and regional experts to prepare studies and provide advice to better inform members before a general vote.

In Parliament, the ICM operates primarily through the 13-member Islamic Bloc, a loose alliance of Islamist MPs that cooperates on certain legislation. The ICM also coordinated with other parliamentary blocs when they supported ICM policies.

ICM leaders and liberal political analysts alike note that there is a conflict within the ICM between the more conservative "old guard" who led the organization up to 2003 and the new leadership, which while still socially conservative is far more pragmatic and "moderate" (on the Islamist scale). ICM members who regularly criticize the U.S. and advocate the most conservative social policies come largely from this weakened, but still influential "old guard."

The ICM and the KMB are "the same thing": ICM members are all Muslim Brothers, but not necessarily vice-versa. Neighborhood KMB committees voted for members of the ICM's General Assembly. The KMB kept a precise database of its members by neighborhood - 200 and 500 are examples of the number of KMB members per neighborhood. Although they have separate leadership structures, the KMB exerts some (undetermined) degree of authority over the ICM.

The KMB is a "secret organization" and, except for its leading personalities, its members are kept secret. Candidates for membership must be "referred" by someone who is already a member: generally, a relative, friend, or teacher. The referral process includes writing a report on the candidate's loyalty, character, and trustworthiness, which is reviewed by KMB leaders before acceptance and initiation.

Support for the ICM comes mainly from students and "conservatives," here incorporating both socially conservative tribal elements and religiously conservative Muslims (i.e. Islamists). ICM members are drawn from the KMB, which recruits young people through student unions and SRS-sponsored spring and summer camps, featuring "boy scout like-activities" and Islamic-themed lectures. The KMB is also rumored to have close connections to Kuwait's Islamic financial community, specifically the Kuwait Finance House (KFH), whose advisory board, according to one report, includes several former SRS officials.

The exact organizational relationship between the KMB and the IMB is unclear. According to ICM leaders, the KMB's relationship with the IMB has been "frozen" since 1990. They explain that the KMB is "a separate entity," which shares a common ideology, "cooperates informally" with other branches of the IMB on charitable activities, and participates in some IMB-organized conferences and seminars, but is not subordinate to the IMB's leadership. As proof of their independence, ICM leaders note that the ICM voted to oppose women's suffrage legislation despite being strongly encouraged by other IMB branches, notably in Jordan and Egypt, to support the legislation.

The ICM is one of the most vocal advocates of political reform in Kuwait. In particular, the organization has actively lobbied for a reduction in the number of electoral constituencies, official Government recognition of political parties, stronger anti-corruption measures, a reduction in the voting age from 21 to 18, police and military suffrage, and a rotation of power by allowing Parliament to choose the Prime Minister. ICM leaders insist they are "firmly committed" to working within Kuwait's democratic system to achieve their political objectives, even if it means being voted out of office.

ICM leaders strongly condemn terrorist violence, specifically in Iraq and Kuwait, though they are notably silent on Palestinian violence against Israel. In 2003, the UN listed Lajnat Al-Daawa Al-Islamiyya (LDI) - a Kuwait-based NGO affiliated with the Social Reform Society (SRS), the social wing of the KMB - as a terrorist-supporting organization and some 1.4 million KD (approximately $4.5 million) of the NGO's assets were frozen. The ICM has vehemently denied any involvement, even remotely through any of its affiliate organizations, in terrorist financing activities.

The ICM supported the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, but now has some concerns about Sunni exclusion from, and Iranian influence on, the nascent Iraqi government. The ICM is also very pragmatic in its relations with Kuwait's Shi'a community. Approximately one third of Kuwaiti citizens are Shi'a. The ICM has coordinated positions on parliamentary issues with Shi'a political associations, and strongly condemned sectarian violence in Iraq, such as the bombing of the Shi'a shrine in Samarra. The ICM is staunchly pro-Palestinian and often criticizes U.S. support for Israel. According to one local press report, the organization supports an "anti-normalization law with Israel."

The ICM's position on economic issues is less specific. Its leaders say they support "reforming the economic system of the State," though they offer few particulars. MPs Al-Basiri and Al-Sane voted for legislation permitting foreigners to own and trade Kuwaiti stocks, a draft law to protect intellectual property rights, and a direct foreign investment law. Al-Sane also voted for an anti-money laundering law; Al-Basiri was absent. In December 2005, Al-Nashi said the ICM would oppose Project Kuwait, an estimated $8.5 billion plan to develop Kuwait's northern oil fields, in its current form, without explaining what changes the ICM proposed.

While forward-looking on most political and economic issues, the ICM is decidedly more conservative on social issues. As an organization, the ICM did not support granting women full political rights; both ICM MPs voted against the legislation, which Parliament approved in May 2005. Most ICM leaders claim, however, they personally supported the legislation, but were overruled by the ICM's conservative base in a close internal vote on the issue.

Despite its initial opposition, the ICM has now fully embraced women's suffrage and is now actively courting the women's vote. The organization is still divided, however, on women holding political office and is unlikely to support any female candidates in the 2007 parliamentary elections. In an interview, Al-Nashi claimed women's electoral participation would "assist the movement (ICM) in achieving positive results." He concluded that "the ICM is very optimistic about women's participation in the next elections."

One of the ICM's most important, and contentious, political objectives is the implementation of Islamic Shari'a, a goal its leaders claim is not contradictory to the organization's commitment to democracy and political pluralism. Specifically, the ICM supports the amendment of Article 2 of the Kuwaiti Constitution, which states that "the religion of the State is Islam, and the Islamic Shari'a shall be a main source of legislation," to read "the source of legislation." This was necessary to nstitutionalize the government's commitment to implementing Islamic Shari'a by ensuring all legislation passed by Parliament, regardless of which group controlled it, would have to be approved by a Shari'a committee before implementation. Certain issues like the prohibition of alcohol and homosexuality, and inheritance law favoring male heirs were non-negotiable under Shari'a, but others like strict punishments for stealing, adultery, and conversion were subject to interpretation and revision. Shari'a is viewed as "a grouping of laws whose interpretation can change over time."

ICM leaders claim the organization's routine political activities and publications are funded through monthly "ICM" dues. Campaigns are funded by candidates, ICM donations, and sponsors who provide money for specific events like campaign dinners. The organization does not have an official budget or produce an annual expense report since political parties are prohibited in Kuwait. The ICM recently created an investment fund specifically earmarked to pay for its future political activitie. Unspecified charity organizations used to partially fund ICM activities, but that due to increased scrutiny and stricter auditing procedures, funds were no longer being raised this way. The ICM claims not to receive or provide money from/to Muslim Brotherhood branches outside of Kuwait. But according to one local press report, the Egyptian government complained to the Government of Kuwait that the KMB provided "at least $10 million" to the Egyptian MB during the recent elections.

In addition to its website (www.icmkw.org), the ICM publishes a weekly newspaper entitled Al-Haraka. Recent issues featured articles by local and regional authors, including women and at least one Shi'a, on a wide range of subjects, such as regional efforts to combat youth drug use, private sector job opportunities, educational reform, instilling Islamic values in young people, junior traders' influence on the Kuwait Stock Exchange, electoral reform, women's political participation, and Palestinian internal politics. The SRS also publishes a weekly entitled Al-Mujtima, which features articles written by both Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti authors and tends to be much more critical of the US.

Many liberal Kuwaitis acknowledge that political reforms will primarily benefit the Islamists, at least in the short-run, but advise a cautious approach to Islamist organizations like the ICM. While there are legitimate concerns about the ICM's positions on certain issues, these should not obstruct constructive engagement with the organization to promote political reform. Of Kuwait's four established Islamist political associations, the ICM is the most moderate and poised to benefit most from continued democratic reforms. The other three - the Traditional Salafis, the Scientific Salafis, and the Ummah (Nation's) Party (also Salafi) - are much more vitriolic in their criticisms of the U.S. and Israel and hard-line in their positions on social issues like women's rights and religious freedom. Other political associations are not as organized and influential as the Islamists, and less likely to be able to take full advantage of the reforms. Kuwait's Shi'a community is fragmented politically, and lacks well-organized political groupings, a cohesive political agenda, and appeal among the non-Shi'a population. Kuwait's liberal political associations, largely relics of the Arab nationalist movements popular here in the 1960s and 1970s, are similarly divided and lack strong public support.

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Page last modified: 07-12-2012 19:15:58 ZULU