KUWAIT CITY -- The country the United States fought the gul war to free will take its first hesitant step toward democracy tomorrow.
Kuwait's national elections stumble far short of the kind of fair and open exercise its Western defenders would have wanted. Women still are excluded, civil rights are reserved for the privileged, and the family of sheiks who have long ruled this desert state will remain firmly in power.
For that matter, the main question after the election will be what power the National Assembly actually will have.
Yet the 50-member assembly will be the only one of its kind in the Persian Gulf, a demonstration of people power in a region of entrenched monarchs. The campaign here has been a showcase of free speech, with exuberant criticism of the government and expectations of more democratic reforms.
"It's a good start," Ali Abu Abraham, a computer engineer, said at a political gathering. "You could call it handicapped democracy."
Kuwait has made an impressive recovery in the 19 months since Iraqi troops fled in jumbled panic. The occupiers left a sacked and looted nation, a modern city stripped bare by thieves, crippled by sabotage and covered with a funereal shroud of oil smoke.
Kuwait opened the deep purse of its oil fortunes to rebuild. More than 700 oil fires -- expected to blaze for two years -- were snuffed out by hired experts in nine months.
Sabotaged power plants and water-desalination stations were rebuilt, roads repaired, beaches mine-swept and the king's palace refitted with gold plumbing fixtures.
Today Kuwait City gleams by day; by night it is lively in neon. Kuwaitis glide past in new gas-guzzling American cars, stopping at reopened Hardee's or Pizza Huts en route to expansive villas. Only an occasional charred building interferes with the smug mood of rediscovered affluence.
Elections were part of the price of rebuilding. They were demanded both by Western allies who wanted a more democratic model for their rescue efforts and by Kuwaitis who desired more freedom after the Iraqi occupation and the cancellation of earlier democratic assemblies in 1986.
The al-Sabah family that has ruled the Arab tribes of this region for 240 years watched in glum silence as the elections unfolded.
"We needed democracy. Everybody is excited," said Salah Salah, 27, a campaign worker.
The candidates are fairly evenly split between independents and representatives from seven competing parties.
In nightly political gatherings, each candidate has a space in the sand. Identically white-robed Kuwaiti men gather by the dozens, and sometimes thousands, to sit, quietly talking politics over tea. Richer candidates cover the ground with carpets and rent hundreds of sofa chairs.
"We don't do it the American way," candidate Ismael Al-Shati said. "We do it in a brotherly way."
Candidates range from those calling for more laws based on Islam to a political comedian. None advocates an end to the al-Sabah reign, but the candidates demand a greater role for the elected assembly in running the government. Some even call for the ruling family to take a figurehead role.
The campaign has highlighted some familial divisions. Only 81,000 adult men of the 600,000 Kuwaitis can prove their male ancestors were here before 1920 and thus are considered "first-class" citizens eligible to vote.
Women have long had more freedoms in Kuwait than in many strict Islamic countries. They can drive cars, wear Western clothes, and compete for jobs and education. But Kuwaiti men evoke hoary old notions to justify the continued ban against women voting.
"Women are good for teaching, and cleaning houses and raising children," said Khalid Harbei at one political camp, as men around him nodded in assent. "Politics should not fill their head."
Ineligible Kuwaiti men whose families came here after 1920 but who stayed and endured the Iraqi occupation resent being told they are not good enough to vote by countrymen who fled to sit out the war in such safe havens as Saudi Arabia, Cairo and Paris.
"People had such expectations after the war that there would be a new Kuwait, that everything would change," said Majeed Al-Shanti, a scientist. "But everything went back the way it was."
Kuwaitis swore that among the changes after the war would be a new self-reliance. They quickly expelled most of the 350,000 Palestinians who did the bulk of skilled work in Kuwait, because the Palestinian leadership and some Palestinians here welcomed the invading Iraqis as heroes.
But instead of learning to be plumbers and teachers themselves, Kuwaitis simply brought in Egyptians and other foreigners as new hired hands. There are glimpses of a return of the arrogance that made Kuwaitis despised in the Arab world. Even Kuwaiti children order foreigners about.