Comment: Build a party, beware of judges, never give up

First published in Foreign Policy. Republished with permission.

With the swearing-in of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in early June, Egypt has turned full circle. This is just the latest version of a familiar and depressing tale.

After all the hope, optimism, and national pride that followed the revolution and the successful overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s bloody 30-year rule, Egyptians are back to square one: Another military strongman has won another contested election, while his political opponents are either in hiding, in jail, or in their graves.

Events in Egypt are similar to those in my own country, the Maldives. We, too, suffered at the hands of a dictator for three decades. We, too, had our own peaceful revolution that swept away the old regime and ushered in new democracy. In 2012, that democracy was snatched away from us by a coup d’état. Since then, we have seen our freedoms and our electoral process undermined.

The experiences of the Maldives and the Arab Spring countries highlight the difficulty of embedding democracy in Muslim nations that have long been governed by authoritarian regimes. Overthrowing the dictator is hard enough, but for democrats, securing the long-term gains of the revolution is proving more challenging.

Just because you’ve pulled out the weeds doesn’t mean that flowers will grow. Like a garden, democracy must be planted and nurtured – or the weeds will grow back stronger than ever.

From my own experience – as, in turn, a democracy activist, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, and the victim of a coup – one of the most important things democrats must do early on is to build a political party around a unified cause; this is a task at which the Egyptian liberals fell short.

Democracy needs infrastructure in place to implement it. Political parties are the most important institution in a new democracy; they are the necessary nuts and bolts, the means for delivering democracy. Once established, they force their members to learn the new tools of contesting democratic power: grassroots mobilization, policy formulation, election campaigning, media relations, and so on.

This process embeds democratic principles among large sections of the population, which in turn creates extra pressure for more democratic reform.

When Maldivians decided they’d had enough of their dictatorship, a number of activists, including myself, slipped out of the country and formed the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). In those days, back in 2004, political parties were banned in the Maldives, so operating in exile was our only option.

We could have focused all our energy on fomenting street protests, but we recognized that there was no point overthrowing the regime if we weren’t in a position to win an election or govern properly. When the Maldivian dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, begrudgingly allowed competitive elections in 2008, the MDP was an established political party. We won the presidential election with 54 percent of the vote.

In contrast, Egyptian liberals focused their attention on bringing down Mubarak. They were successful, and we all held our breath at the prospect of a free and democratic Egypt. But once Mubarak fell, the liberals found that they didn’t have a strong, unified political party that could successfully compete in the ensuing elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had run an underground political machine for decades, swooped in and clinched victory. So the most important lesson for aspiring democrats, before anything else, is this: Focus on building your political party.

The creation of successful political parties, though, is rarely enough to properly embed democracy. This brings me to my second lesson: Beware of judges. In the Maldives, like Egypt, the former dictator appointed all of the sitting judges. These judges, loyal to the old guard, hell-bent on maintaining their power, and steeped in anti-democratic ideology, actively undermined the new democracy.

Judges blocked revenue-raising measures, protected members of the former regime from corruption probes, and granted themselves ever more power. In the Maldives, a new constitution passed in 2008, granting judges independence, as part of the separation of powers.

But like giving Dracula the keys to the blood bank, this decision gave unfettered power to a judiciary that is rotten to the core. This problem still haunts the Maldives. In last year’s presidential elections, for instance, the Supreme Court constantly meddled in the vote to favor old-guard candidates, annulling and postponing votes, intimidating the Elections Commission, and making up the law as they went along. Ahead of parliamentary elections earlier this year, the court was at it again, sacking the Elections Commission chief and threatening his staff.

Confronting a corrupt, but independent, judiciary is particularly challenging for new rulers. The international community is largely clueless about how to deal with the problem. In the Maldives, for instance, the one organization that should have helped, the United Nations, instead considered judicial independence to be sacrosanct — a misguided approach that treated poorly educated, corrupt, and often criminal judges as if they were U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Kenya may provide a better example of the sort of radical judicial reform needed in post-revolution or, in its case, post-conflict societies. In Kenya, the new government, with international support, overhauled its judiciary and established an independent “Vetting of Judges and Magistrates Board.” Unqualified, incompetent, or corrupt judges were removed from office. Whatever the method, the international community needs a new approach for dealing with inherited judiciaries in fledgling democracies.

This brings me to my third and final lesson: Never give up. Democratic movements need patience, optimism, and determination. People often ask me how I remain optimistic about the future of my island country, with respect to both its democratic trajectory and its survival in the face of rising sea levels (the Maldives is one of the world’s lowest-lying nations).

But when you choose to be a democracy activist in an authoritarian regime, or indeed a proponent of firm action to combat climate change, you have little choice but to remain optimistic. The alternative is too bleak.

This applies to everyone, from Egyptian liberals, to Maldivian human rights defenders, to pro-democracy activists in countries like Burma and Libya: Never give up — and never assume that your cause is lost. Even when you face disappointment, there are usually unexplored avenues through which you can continue the struggle. In September 2013, after my party won the first round of presidential elections, the Maldives Supreme Court annulled the vote and got the Elections Commission to re-run the elections as many times as it took for our party to lose.* (The photo above shows Mohamed Nasheed at a protest to demand a run-off vote in Male.) After all this, some Maldivians told me that they felt despair over the future of their country. I responded: “Don’t presume that this is the end of the book. We’re only in the middle of the story. Don’t be so hasty as to predict how the story will end.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister of Sri Lanka, once told me: “When the music stops, you must sit [down].” This may be true for political leaders, but not for democracy activists. Authoritarian regimes are more fragile than they appear. With a little push, they often collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. So be tenacious, strategic, and, above all, patient.

The peaceful and legitimate transfer of power is the defining characteristic of functioning democracy; it is how society grows and develops, and it is the overarching goal of any pro-democracy activist. During President Obama’s second inauguration I heard a speech that, coming less than a year after the Maldives’ coup, sent a chill down my spine. Senator Lamar Alexander summed up everything democracy activists should strive for: the regular transfer of power, through peaceful and legitimate means. He said: “There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection. This is a moment when millions stop and watch.” For democracy activists around the world, huddled in their cafés or counting down the days in their prison cell, it is this moment that makes it all worthwhile.


13 thoughts on “Comment: Build a party, beware of judges, never give up”

  1. Even Naheed himself fancies himself as a political activist rather than a leader. Here is he says it in his own words

    ” This may be true for political leaders, but not for democracy activists"

  2. The biggest threat to the nation, by far, is the incompetent Judiciary, as you have rightly pointed out.

    And the biggest challenge, is to reform them, from the ignorant puppets they are, to a civilized standard. Even getting elected as the President, is easier than reforming the Judiciary.

  3. Nasheed never won any election in 2013 ? Yameen got always second place and then in the final run off , yameen won the election.

    This was a repeat of what ahd happened in 2008. In 2008, Nasheed got 2nd place and then a coalition was formed to kick out or defat Gayoom and that is how Nasheed can in to power in 2009.

    Nasheed and Minivan need to digest the facts whether they likes or not ? They need to learn that very time, things will not necessarily fall into their hands .

    Gayyoom never made any fuss when Nasheed won in the run off election in 2008 and he let go the defeat.

    Nasheed must also accept his defeat and majority of people do not want him back ever.

  4. Good article. I believe that the biggest mistake we made in the Maldives was ushering in a whole new system in one go. We don't have the resources (human and otherwise) to have succeeded at that. As Nasheed highlighted, this was particularly problematic in the case of the judiciary. But the judiciary was not alone in that regard.

    We should have opted out for a phased transition with the powers of Executive curtailed as per the current Constitution. We should have set minimum standards for Majlis members, judges, members of independent institutions and so on. We should have proportional representation for Majlis that truly reflects the dispersed population. It makes no sense whatsoever to have more than 80 MPs for our small country.

    We should have limited and shortened the sitting term for ALL of them including judges, possibly to a maximum of 4 years or even 3. No one deserves a life time post in any capacity in modern society. That's a hangover from autocratic days.

    In short, we need to go back and make some fundamental changes. One thing is for sure; the current system is totally inadequate and badly broken.

  5. No no no, Nasheed. Your problem is that you're too humane. You had the chance to reform the judiciary, but your 'hitthirikan' got in the way.

    What you do to reform a corrupt judiciary in the service of the dictators is to use bulldozers, rocket artillery and napalm to rubberstamp the reforms.

    We all know what happened when you tried the 'humane' way with a child abuse enabler, right? Every last heroin peddler and gangster he freed came to his rescue.

  6. Democracy does not go along with organized religions.  When you have institutionalized   state religion and used it as a  tool, democracy cannot get rooted in such environment.   When such religion does not give room for free thinking and dissent you should never discuss democracy in such place and you can never bring democracy to such people.  Today there are fewer problems with racism, but religious prejudice in ignorant people creates more problems then racism can create.    Anni  is the only true hero ever witnessed in Maldives, the only person who had lit the beacon of democracy in Maldives who had enough courage to speak about freedom of expressions and  dissent  and human rights, we should not dehumanize such honorable person even those religious fanatics have a duty to respect him though his views are liberal and for freedom lovers, you have to go along with him even you don’t agree with his policies, freedom is the best gift for all earthlings , even you can enjoy your religious ecstasy when you  get it through freedom without being forced down to your thoughts by some people like you. 

  7. Maldives cannot have a NEVER ENDING democratic struggle. When the 'music stops' Nasheed should also have to sit and wait for the next 5 years.

    This continous call for chaos, (allegedley to bring a democracy to Maldives), has beocome a self fullfiling prophecy for Nasheed.

    A dictatorship for another 5 years with some peace and quet is much better than continous mobs roaming on streets. Mr. Nasheeds actions would only bring a bad name to democracy..

  8. ali,

    We do have minimum standards set for Judges specified in the constitution - and the current crop of judges nowhere near meet that criteria.

    But you might notice that the constitution of the Maldives is no longer in force, if at all it was.


    It is rather disingenuous to compare the elections of 2008 with that of 2013. You're glossing over the entire Supreme Court + Police drama. The election was a farce.

    Ultimately, I do agree that the ballot counting process was fair (Thanks to an Elections Comissioner of outstanding calibre as Fuwad Thowfeek and his dedicated team), which makes Yameen Abdul Gayoom an elected President.

    Ballots alone, however, do not make a democracy. The whole election season and the events in the months preceding it show how far away the Maldives is actually from any form of functioning democracy.

  9. @yaamyn.
    Explain me how Nasheed got millions of dollars spent on last election and from where he got those money.

    Nasheed had run a non stop campaign for 3 years incurring millions on daily basis. From where he got all these funds.

    Its from GMR and GMR had spent over 20 millions dollars to being back Nasheed with hope of getting back airport.

    This is why Nasheed is still trying his luck of binging back GMR.

    But we will never allow that to happened under our watch .

    In 2008, Nasheed only got 22% and 78% people never want him to be the President .

    This is the truth and even NSHEED himself had openly told infrint of media that people of Maldives had spoken and made clear to him that they don't want him to be president but they want have a coalition to lead the country.

    But the guy had forgotten all what he said during his campaign in less than 30 days from taking over the post .

  10. @ Maldivian : I agree with you. Nasheed's biggest mistake was letting his enemies get off easily.

  11. Nasheed elected to be the President and if he had acted like a President of Maldives, and if he had not started robbing this country, he still have been able to cling on power.

    But the guy got his ego to maximum and thought that by threatening Maldivian will bow out heads to him like king.

    The budgets Gunda in this country and so cruel and only saw us as his slaves. We have now shown what it likes to be .

    Go and be President of Kenereege and not Maldives

  12. Hero,

    You make a very serious allegation that GMR "spent over 20 millions dollars to being back Nasheed with hope of getting back airport"

    The onus is on you to back up this claim with some verifiable evidence.

  13. @dangerous game

    You can have another 5~10 years of your peace as we are robbed, beaten and enslaved. But the next time, people will rally under a leader who's not so 'hithiri' - someone that can promise a genocide on people who are directly responsible for their suffering.

    So, ask yourself this. Will you give us our freedom, or will we tear it from your cold, dead hands?


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