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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 was rising as steadily as the sea level that threatened to swallow the archipelagic nation whole.
For average citizens, the Maldives is far from a tropical paradise. The creation of a multiparty democracy injected polarization into the country’s political system. Gayoom himself was hardly extremist, but he had studied at al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the world centers of Islamic learning. He had also emerged from the Hosni Mubarak school of Islamic nationalism, able to deftly wield religion as a political weapon. With the exception of a failed coup attempt in 1988, his rule was relatively untroubled until the emergence of a genuine pro-democracy movement in 2005. The murder of a young boy by prison officers sparked riots, and Gayoom’s crackdown drew both international opprobrium and increasing concessions toward democracy. These culminated in 2008 with a new constitution and the first multiparty election in the country’s history. Nasheed, a former journalist and political prisoner, defeated Gayoom, ending the reign of Asia’s longest-serving dictator. Diplomats and international agencies rejoiced at the rare triumph of democracy in an Islamic country, only to turn their attention away from the Maldives shortly thereafter.
I came to the Maldives in 2009 to edit the country’s first independent English news outlet, Minivan News (Independent News). The newspaper, founded in exile within Sri Lanka in 2005, was the Maldives’ first dissident media outlet. It later became the outside world’s most credible news source on Maldivian politics, with a vibrant comments section where readers could publicly and safely express their views—many doing so for the first time. It grew beyond its reporting into a rare, neutral forum for the liberal intelligentsia to thrash out matters of human rights, corruption, and democracy with regime supporters and ardent Salafists, as well as the occasional curious (and often horrified) tourist. Freedom of expression remained constitutionally limited by the so-called tenets of Islam, but under Nasheed’s tenure, Minivan News was able to conduct issue-based reporting on taboo topics such as abortion, suicide, and judicial misconduct.
Although the Maldives experimented with democracy, its judges were holdovers from Gayoom’s tenure. After losing the 2008 election, the former regime was able to convince the country’s Judicial Services Commission to unconstitutionally award Gayoom-appointed judged with life tenure. This allowed the judiciary to operate as it always had, protecting regime figures and obstructing investigations into corruption and human rights abuses. In 2012, Nasheed detained Abdulla Mohamed, chief justice of the country’s criminal court, for abuses of power—typical exercises in the nation’s justice system. This action ultimately provided the judiciary with enough of an excuse to begin its push to remove Nasheed and bring the old regime back into power. Its supporters staged protests, bolstered by gangs paid that were nightly in cash and alcohol. The vice president, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, met the opposition and publicly sided with them against Nasheed. On the morning of February 7, 2012, the police joined the demonstrators, forcing the military into their base that adjoined Malé’s Republic Square. Troops fired tear gas canisters over the wall in response, but it had little effect: police had distributed riot gear and gas masks to protesters, and high winds had blown much of it out to sea. A number of soldiers began emerging from their fortress to fight alongside the mob outside. Nasheed was trapped inside the base, unsure of the fate of his wife and two daughters, who remained in the presidential residence.
A sense of total impunity gripped Malé as the security forces turned on the government. Many, particularly among the police riot squad, had remained loyal to Gayoom despite the country’s new leadership. The new constitution separated the nation’s police from its armed forces, and as a result, many soldiers were unwilling to use force on their comrades. Those who remained loyal were frustrated by Nasheed’s refusal to unlock the armory and authorize lethal force against their rebelling colleagues.
Amid the chaos, a mob of fundamentalists burst into the Maldives’ national museum to smash all remaining evidence of the country’s pre-Islamic history. Security forces broke off from the main protest to storm the studio of the state broadcaster. Under the leadership of the vice president’s brother, they blew open the gates and switched the station’s news feed to that of a private, pro-Gayoom station. This was a clear signal to those who watched on the country’s other islands: the old regime was back.
I called Nasheed’s foreign press secretary, Paul Roberts.
“Was it a coup?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, and hung up.
Roberts was hiding in a bathroom in the president’s office. The military marched Nasheed in front of cameras so he could announce his resignation. Vice President Waheed—mysteriously absent during the morning’s unrest—was sworn in as his replacement.
Waheed publicly expressed frustration with what he considered Nasheed’s unilateralism in the past, and had vented his own sense of thwarted ambition for the presidency. When Waheed took power, he presented himself as an amicable mediator amid the country’s toxic and uncompromising politics. Many in Nasheed’s government distrusted him, seeing him as foolish and easily manipulated. In hindsight, Waheed’s public support for the protests, in addition to a late-night meeting with opposition heads a week prior to the coup, appeared rather incriminating. This was missed by diplomatic crisis teams that rushed to Malé in the aftermath of the coup.
Malé went quiet for hours after the coup. Ministers and MDP members hid from the public in fear of reprisal attacks. Explosive protests would spread across the country’s 200 inhabited islands the following day, but for the moment, the atmosphere was one of stunned apprehension. The Gayoom era was still fresh in many people’s minds, and people were uncertain and afraid of what would happen next. It was late evening before the stunned MDP issued a statement declaring that the country had experienced a coup that day.
TOO LEGIT TO QUIT
Foreign governments initially recognized Waheed’s arrival as legitimate, either out of reflexive diplomatic procedure or because of the fogginess of the real circumstances. Most of the embassies were based in nearby Sri Lanka and deferred to India’s assessment of the situation, as it was the only country that had a sizable presence in Malé. Former Indian High Commissioner DM Mulay had spent the crisis in the company of Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a three-day truce. Given the circumstances, acknowledging Waheed’s authority may have seemed a plausible compromise for stability. In fact, only Timor-Leste initially declared Waheed’s ascension a coup. But his violent crackdown on protesters the following day gave foreign diplomats pause. So too did his entreaty to supporters at his first public rally as president: “Be courageous; today you are all mujahideen.” (Holy warriors.)
The regime tried to present itself as a new government, even though it was clear to Maldivians that it was old wine in new bottles. Gayoom’s children received plum ministerial positions, as did the two civilians who took command of the police and army during the mutiny. Meanwhile, Waheed presented himself to the international audience as a peacemaker, the voice of reason that stood between the protesting MDP politicians and the newly empowered parties of the old regime. The international community finally attempted to mediate the crisis, although UN-sponsored meetings fell apart once Waheed’s so-called national unity government demanded that the MDP give up their protests and “stop practicing black magic” as a precondition.
The MDP fought for snap elections, but despite the backing of half the country found themselves in a weakened position with confused international support. Meanwhile, the regime’s judiciary attempted to convict Nasheed for detaining Mohamed during his administration, which would bar him from contesting the outcome of the nation’s presidential elections in September 2013.
The international community, initially blindsided by Nasheed’s ouster, stepped up its monitoring and became increasingly sympathetic as the court’s goal became obvious. Pressure from groups such as the International Committee of Jurists, the UK Bar Human Rights Association, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers proved enough to keep Nasheed out of jail and on the ballot.
The MDP won a sizeable majority and only narrowly missed an outright victory in first round of polls, widely praised as free and fair by international monitors. It was no surprise when the judiciary intervened, annulling the result and ordering police to halt further polls until the deck was stacked in favor of Gayoom’s half-brother, Yameen.
After months of obstruction and compromise of the electoral system, Yameen narrowly won a final runoff with 51 percent of the vote. For such a close result, the evening of his election victory was surprisingly muted—few of those who voted for him appeared to be celebrating. Festivities were limited to a group of motorcyclists who circled the small city shouting, “30 more years!”
MEET THE NEW BOSS
Yameen wasted little time consolidating power after taking office, outlawing protests and jailing the leadership of every opposition party. Successive vice presidents and cabinet ministers rose and then fell out of Yameen’s favor, only to be jailed or exiled as his paranoia grew. Some of the MDP’s most bitter adversaries found themselves seeking refuge in the United Kingdom alongside rival party members.
The case against Nasheed was also reopened. This time, he was swiftly sentenced to 13 years in jail on terrorism charges. A sustained international campaign to free him led to his exile to the United Kingdom on medical grounds. Meanwhile, Islamic extremism, unleashed as a powerful political weapon against Nasheed’s liberal progressiveness, was allowed to grow unchecked. In fact, the Maldives has more contributed more fighters to the war Syria on a per capita basis than any other country. The courts have shuttered the country’s largest newspaper, and the space for media in the Maldives has shrunk dramatically. One of Minivan News’ reporters, Ahmed Rilwan, was kidnapped outside his house at knifepoint. He remains missing two years later. The publication continues to report as the Maldives Independent, thanks to a brave team of Maldivian journalists.
The Maldives has all the hallmarks of a modern dictatorship. The jackbooted thugs in fatigues are kept in the background; instead, the regime relies on the very institutions that are supposed to sustain a democracy. Elections have little relevance in a country where the judiciary and all other independent institutions have been either destroyed or co-opted by the regime. A vote is for a term—but a judicial appointment is for a lifetime.
I interviewed Nasheed several years after the 2013 election that marked the end of the Maldives’ experiment with democracy. It had been a mistake to think the challenge was votes; the courts would have rejected any outcome that didn’t signal a win for Yameen. Failure to reform the judiciary was the real defeat, not just for the MDP but the entire country. The election had been a sideshow to a greater struggle between democracy and dictatorship.
The dramatic events of the February 2012 coup had been the beginning of the end. Curious, I asked Nasheed whether he would have done anything differently.
“We could have shot everyone. It’s essentially very simple to suppress a public uprising,” he said. “I could have held on, but that would have been at a huge cost to the country and the people. There would have been a lot of blood.”
I observed that he was perhaps the only national leader to emerge from the turmoil of the Arab Spring without blood on his hands. “What was the secret to that?” I asked.
“Losing,” he replied.