Comment: The Maldives, Egypt and the revenge of the deep state

When Mohamed Mursi was ousted in Egypt in June, the Muslim Brotherhood decried it as the revenge of the “deep state.”

They said that in the days of the revolution in January 2011, they had managed to cut off the head of the Mubarak regime, but in the two years that followed they failed to pull out the roots.

And so a loose coalition of politicians, bureaucrats and security forces – the remnants of the old regime – gathered together and slowly hacked away at the new government.

The climax came in June, Mursi flinched and the forces of the deep state took their chance.

Today, Hosni Mubarak is free, Muslim Brotherhood activities are again banned, and the revolution of 2011 appears to be slowly unravelling.

A lot remains unclear. Will scheduled elections actually happen? Will they be free and fair? What will Egypt look like a decade from now?

The Maldives might offer an answer.

An island of chaos

When Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in February 2012, the Maldivian Democratic Party also decried it as the revenge of the “deep state.”

“Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office,” Nasheed wrote in the New York Times that week.

Given what we know now, his words were remarkably prescient.

“The wave of revolutions that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen last year was certainly cause for hope. But the people of those countries should be aware that, long after the revolutions, powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies.”

This process happened in the Maldives over a year before Mursi was locked up.

Since then, the country has stumbled towards elections, led by a lame-duck president and pulled in two directions by rival clans – one loyal to Mohamed Nasheed and a reformist, democratic ideology and one to the former leader for 30 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and a conservative, autocratic government.

Two competing tribes

Educated at Egypt’s Al Azhar University, Gayoom took power in 1978 and continued to govern based on a centralised system of patronage.

Never winning an election by less than 90 per cent, he relied on island chiefs, or ‘khateebs’, to keep control of 200 disparate island-communities. Gayoom’s government appointed them, as well as judges, bureaucrats and the top police and military officers.

Over three decades, he grew the roots of the Maldives’ “deep state.”

But by 2004, with tourism booming and the Maldives modernising, a new, democratic vision emerged under the yellow flag of the Maldivian Democratic Party.

Over the next four years, with the support of the West, Nasheed’s movement slowly forced Gayoom to launch a reform programme, pass a new constitution and hold free elections.

Nasheed won that battle after a second round run-off, but over the next three-and-a-half years, he failed to win the war to deconstruct the “deep state,” most notably the judiciary.

Judging the judiciary

With all the reforms of the last decade, the Maldives got new leaders and new members of parliament, but the judges stayed the same.

Article 285 of the country’s revised constitution envisaged a different judiciary – but it was dismissed as symbolic by a committee dominated by Gayoom’s former appointees.

The decision left the nation saddled with the judges from a former era.

‘They were hand-picked by Gayoom,’ says Maldivian journalist Zaheena Rasheed. “They lack education and some of them even have criminal records.”

The US State Department points out that of the Maldives’ magistrates, “an estimated quarter of the judges had criminal records, and two of the judges had been convicted of sexual assault.”

In again, out again

Having failed to clean up the judiciary by committee, Nasheed confronted them head on.

In a move that many criticised as dictatorial, he ordered the arrest of a politician who had allegedly accused him of carrying out a Christian-Jewish conspiracy in a Muslim country.

But the Criminal Court judge overruled Nasheed, triggering a bizarre series of arrests and releases which caused many to ask who was in control, the judges or the president?

Nasheed then ordered the arrest of the Criminal Court’s Chief Judge, accused of blocking attempts to prosecute former officials charged with corruption.

Three weeks of protests, followed by a mutiny by elements of the police and the military, and it became clear where power lay.

Nasheed fell from power and on February 7, he appeared on television and resigned.

“I have never wanted to rule by force,” he said. “I came to this decision because, in my opinion, I sincerely believe, that if this government is to be maintained, it would require the use of extreme force and cause harm to a lot of citizens.”

The next day he told reporters, “I was forced to resign at gunpoint.”

When an election is not an election

Nasheed’s deputy, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, took over and eventually took the country back to the ballot box on September 7.

Over 200,000 people voted, a turnout of more than 88 per cent. Nasheed fell short of a first-round win but took 45 per cent of the vote.

Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, came second with 25 per cent.

Around 1,000 observers deemed it “a transparent and fair election”. It was ‘an achievement of which any of the mature democracies would have been proud,’” said J M Lyngdoh, head of the Indian election observer mission.

But then third-placed Qasim Ibrahim, Gayoom’s former finance minister, complained about electoral fraud. Gayoom himself also appeared on television to voice his concerns about the vote and within days, the Supreme Court had annulled the result. It cited a secret police report that claimed over 5,000 ballots were ineligible.

Gayoom was quick to tweet, “I welcome [the] Supreme Court’s historic decision last night because it upholds the Constitution [and] the right of the people to elect their leader in a free, fair, transparent [and] credible election.”

“A tool”

“The Supreme Court is being used as a tool by the people people who brought down Mohamed Nasheed’s government to prevent him returning to power,” says Aishath Velezinee.

She served as Deputy Home Minister under Nasheed and sat on the committee and campaigned to clean up the judiciary, but she was overruled.

The court’s ruling to void the September 7 election also included 16 recommendations on how to run another vote by October 20, narrowing the role of the Elections Commission and raising the involvement of other institutions, including the police.

“[The Supreme Court judges] are writing the law when they should be interpreting it,” says Rasheed.

A former UN worker, who did not want to be identified, goes further. ‘The bottom line is that this situation is ridiculous because the Supreme Court ruling is unconstitutional.’

The country is now waiting nervously to see if a vote can be held ahead of the deadline, and if so, what the result will be and if it will be respected.

Back to Egypt

If Egypt’s “deep state” is now back in control, it is also still considering what to do about elections.

Interim leaders have announced a roadmap which plans for both parliamentary and presidential votes to be completed by spring next year, but there is no guarantee that they will be free or fair, or that the result will be respected.

Egypt’s judiciary may become crucial, being called up on to rule on any disputes.

Is it up to the task?

Thousands of miles away in the Maldives, they know the importance of keeping the judiciary free from political interference.

Failing to clean it up “has been a grave mistake,” says Velezinee. ‘But it was impossible at the time. Everyone assumed the judiciary was untouchable.’

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