Political Unrest in the Maldives

The Island Nation's Brief Flirtation with Democracy

A Maldivian man looks at a presidential election campaign poster of presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed in Male September 6, 2013. Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

The first sign of trouble came when the phone rang at seven in the morning. Maldivians tend to be nocturnal; a call before noon means that the caller was either up all night or that something big is happening. On the morning of February 7, 2012, both were the case.

My informant called to tell me he had spent the night watching the Maldives Police Service turn on supporters of the government-aligned Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The party had pushed for and won the first free and fair elections in the Maldives barely three years earlier, but as the police and citizens protested in Malé’s main square, it became apparent that the nation’s newborn democracy was on fire. Who provided the gasoline that fueled the flames was less clear.

In 2005, the Maldives embarked on a remarkable experiment in democracy. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had ruled the country for 30 years through a potent mix of Islamic nationalism, isolationism, and psychological oppression. But protesters and nascent political parties began to challenge his rule, which culminated in an election three years later. His successor, Mohamed Nasheed, ushered in a new era for the nation’s politics—only to be ousted from power in 2012 by regime loyalists and their proxies. The Maldivian experiment with democracy began two years before the first stirrings in Tunisia, making it the first (and only bloodless) revolution of the Arab Spring. It may have ended in failure, but it has important lessons for other democratic transitions.


For decades, Gayoom had kept the nation’s economy afloat almost exclusively through Western tourism. Visitors were gently discouraged from setting foot on any island inhabited by regular Maldivians. Instead, they were whisked by speedboat or seaplane from the airport to remote island resorts. Foreign beachgoers on romantic getaways could lie on the sand in bikinis sipping piña coladas. But just across the water, alcohol was outlawed, religions other than Islam were banned, and fornication was punishable by 100 lashes and banishment. Extremism

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