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Lessons from the Maldives for the Middle East

The coup d’état in the Maldives doesn’t augur well for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. Andrew Wigley argues that the process of detoxifying a nation after dictatorship may take decades
Andrew Wigley
16 February 2012

As coup d’états go, the toppling last week of the Maldives’ first elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, appeared a rather undramatic affair. Nasheed announced suddenly he was standing down; his deputy, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, would be taking over. This involved no tanks, few casualties (beyond the president himself) and little shock and awe.

End of story? Not quite. The coup plotters – who appear to have been a coalition of senior army figures, politicians and business leaders – believed they could cow Nasheed into silence and governance of a remote and geopolitically insignificant nation would continue without the world taking too much notice. Early signs suggest that was a mistaken judgement.

It seems that they hadn’t banked on Nasheed putting up much resistance. His first shot came in a considered op-ed in the New York Times two days after his resignation. In it he wrote of the corrupt legacy that 30 years of dictatorship had left the small, Indian Ocean archipelago state. Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office, he wrote. Moreover, prompt action by the United States led to the assistant secretary of state flying in to the capital Male to express his government’s concern and to pressure the Maldives into an official enquiry into the events.

Beyond the picture postcard images of coral atolls and pristine beaches, the Maldives has a remarkably long and established cultural heritage. It was established as a Sultanate in 1153, becoming a protectorate of the United Kingdom in 1887 until 1965. Today, it remains a member of the Commonwealth.

Its post colonial history was dominated by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who came to power in 1978 after a period of instability and maintained office throughout the 1980s fending off three separate coup attempts. Many foreign powers viewed Gayoom as a president who provided stability and strong leadership. Indeed he was, holding office for 30 years and being returned unopposed no fewer than six times.

Credited by some for building the Maldives’ modern tourism sector, he is viewed by many as an autocrat responsible for fostering a repressive system demanding obedience and showing little care for human rights.

A gay Maldivian I know suffered under Gayoom’s watch. Having been granted permission to study overseas, shortly before his departure he was arrested on unsubstantiated sodomy allegations, assaulted in custody and subsequently sentenced to two years imprisonment. He had fallen foul of the Gayoom regime’s pernicious social mores.

Largely oblivious, tourists continued to holiday in the Maldives and contribute to the economy’s massive growth, now accounting for almost a third of the nation’s GDP. Therein may lie the coup plotters’ Achilles heel.

A successful large-scale tourism offer, especially an upmarket proposition such as the Maldives, relies on a number of factors for its success – political stability, personal security and health/well-being. Take one element away, and the consequences can be highly damaging. Already the British government has advised travellers and holidaymakers to avoid all but essential travel to the capital, Male. Consular travel alerts and shuttle diplomacy do little to fill hotels.

That said, only the more attentive among us may have noticed the Maldives coup, overshadowed as it was by the tragedy unfolding in Syria. Yet, what happened in Male is directly relevant to the Arab Spring, coming as it does just a few days before the first anniversary of the resignation of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

The message from the Maldives is that once the euphoria of deposing a dictator subsides, a long journey lies ahead for a nation led by its new, aspirant political class as it begins to pick apart the vestiges of the old, corrupt system.

As Mohamed Nasheed explained last week, the former dictatorship he replaced in 2008 bequeathed to the infant democracy a looted treasury, a ballooning budget deficit and a rotten judiciary; indeed President Gayoom hand-picked the entire nation’s judiciary which had subsequently protected the interests of his family and political cronies, many of whom were accused of embezzlement, corruption and human rights abuses.

The lessons, therefore, are twofold:

  • First, in terms of the emerging Muslim democracies in North Africa and the Middle East, events in the Maldives are a reminder to those who have fought and deposed demagogues that they need to be vigilant and scrutinise. This is an ongoing, long-term process. Fatigue isn’t an option.

  • Second, and of equal significance, the European Union, the US and other actors which have supported regime change in the region, need to maintain their engagement far beyond the photo opportunity afforded by the hastily arranged visit of an impatient prime minister. Moreover, it’s all too easy once their outbound tourists return to nations such as the Maldives, Tunisia and Egypt, to assume all is well.

We may never know the impulses surrounding Nasheed’s removal from office. But if the democratic process of a small nation such as the Maldives – which has a negligible military and security force – continues to flail four years after the sweeping away of a generation of dictatorship there, then the process of detoxifying complex societies in the Middle East and North Africa may take decades.

One year after the beginning of uprisings across the Arab world, the deposed Maldivian president offers a prescient assessment of the challenges to come: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.

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