Why the Maldives should be a cautionary tale for other Muslim nations undergoing democratic reform
Dictatorships dont always die when the dictator leaves office. The wave of revolutions that toppled autocrats in Tunisia,Egypt,Libya and Yemen last year was certainly cause for hope. But people there should be aware that,long after the revolutions,powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies.
I learned this lesson quickly. My country,the Maldives,voted out President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom,its iron-fisted ruler,back in 2008,in historic elections that swept away three decades of his authoritarian rule. And yet the dictatorship bequeathed to the infant democracy a looted treasury,a ballooning budget deficit and a rotten judiciary.
I was elected that year,and with the help of the International Monetary Fund,my government worked to cut the deficit,while also building a modern tax base. For the first time in its history,the Maldives a group of islands in the Indian Ocean had a democratically elected president,parliament and local councils.
But it also had a judiciary handpicked by the former president,which was now hiding behind a democratic constitution. These powerful judges provided protection for the former president,his family and political allies,many of whom are accused of corruption,embezzlement and human rights crimes. At the same time,new laws guaranteeing freedom of speech were abused by a new force in Maldivian politics: Islamic extremists. The former presidents cabinet members threw anti-Semitic and anti-Christian slurs at my government,branding as apostates anyone who tried to defend the countrys liberal Islamic traditions and claiming that democracy granted them licence to call for violent jihad and indulge in hate speech.
In response to these issues,my government asked the United Nations to help us investigate judicial abuses and ordered the arrest of Abdulla Mohamed,the chief judge of the criminal court,on charges of protecting the former president and corrupting the judicial system. However,in a dramatic turn of events on Tuesday,the former presidents supporters protested in the streets,and police officers and army personnel loyal to the old government mutinied and forced me,at gunpoint,to resign. To avoid bloodshed,I did so. I believe this to be a coup détat and suspect that my vice president,who has since been sworn into office,helped to plan it. Choosing to stand up to the judge was a controversial decision,but I feel I had no choice but to do what I did to have taken no action,and passively watched the countrys democracy strangled,would have been the greatest injustice of all.
The problems we are facing in the Maldives are a warning for other Muslim nations undergoing democratic reform. At times,dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a hydra: when you remove one head,two more grow back. With patience and determination,the beast can be slain. But let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: the dictator can be removed in a day,but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.
The writer was president of the Maldives from 2008 until February 7