“The Side Door Is Open”: Identity Articulation and Cultural Practices in Post-Arab Spring Kuwait

Part of the Contemporary Gulf Studies book series (CGS)


In 2011–2013 Kuwait experienced its own version of the Arab Spring. Motivated and inspired by the mobilizations in Tunisia and Egypt, tens of thousands of people rallied to protest against corruption, demanding accountability and the extension of citizenship rights. As a consequence of widespread sanctions and the criminalization of activists, engagement for social change has been transferred from the streets to civil society via cultural projects. Non-traditional political actors have, thus, moved their activism to informal venues and spaces of articulation of debate, keeping the political message of their actions, albeit adopting nonconfrontational techniques and methodologies. A creative delegitimization (Herrera and Bayat 2010) ensues, whereby dissent operates in the interstices between civil society and the state. This chapter investigates the political and social role of activists in contemporary Kuwait, and how the articulation of their engagement in civil society contests and challenges dominant cultural and political paradigms, allowing for new identity markers to be explored, navigating identities between social constructions and political negotiations. The analysis focuses on the cultural roots and manifestations of local activism through everyday cultural practices, carving new spaces of autonomy and expressions of identity, while allowing for new forms of social interaction to occur.

To examine the significance of these practices, together with their social and cultural reach, the current debate on democratization and civil society is addressed, analyzing both classical theories and postcolonial elaborations with reference to the Middle East. Loci for the articulation of political debate in Kuwait are investigated in relation to the main groups excluded from formal sites of power, whose actions and engagement open up the debate on identity, belonging and a renewed concept of citizenship. The emergence of groups, collectives, associations and platforms active in civil society is analyzed through the lens of their conscious choice to operate outside official channels of participation and refusing state sponsorship. Informality allows for flexibility and adaptability of these fluid civic structures, while avoiding government censorship. As government repression escalated in the aftermath of the local Arab Spring, with the detention of protestors, increased censorship and cracking down on freedom of expression, activists have turned to civil society and renewed forms of civic engagement or reactivated already existing ties. Quotidian cultural projects obliterate the exceptionality of the protests to relocate the political message into everyday life. The shift of political socialization and activism, and the extension of the political debate to more informal venues of participation, the aggregating role of social media and the elaboration of new projects of participation in society highlight a disaffection toward traditional politics and its expressions. The chapter, thus, situates Kuwaiti cultural and political activism within the broader theme of identity construction in the Arab Gulf and the Middle East.

Narratives from two ethnographic fieldworks based on interviews with social and political activists carried out in Kuwait in 2013 and between 2013 and 2016 ground the theoretical perspective while opening up interrogatives on national as well as political identity.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Monterrey (UDEM)MonterreyMexico

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