Even after its democratic revolution in 2008, few saw the Maldives as a political trend-setter, writes former President Mohamed Nasheed for Foreign Policy magazine.
“Yet, in retrospect, the ousting of a 30-year dictatorship in a Muslim country was a precursor to the Arab Spring revolts that swept across the Middle East two years later. As in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the Maldivians who took to the streets, confronting the regime’s riot police, and demanding change in 2008 were youthful, full of aspirations for a better economic future, and tired of the iron-fisted autocratic rule of a dictator – Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. I was elected president in the first-ever multi-party polls in the Maldives’ 2,500-year history, on a ticket of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and democratic change.
Fast-forward to this month, when the forces of autocracy in the Maldives staged a sudden and brutal coup d’etat. Rogue elements in the police and military joined together to seize the main television station, ransack the offices of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, and force my own resignation with threats of bloodshed. In the days that followed I, and many of my fellow democrats, were beaten and imprisoned, and the young democracy we have worked so hard to nurture has been left in mortal danger.
If the Maldives was a precursor to the Arab Spring, let us hope that it is not now a foretaste of a new Arab Winter. There is still time for democracy to recover in my country, but only if the wider world insists that a forceful coup against an elected government cannot be allowed to stand.
For the past three years, despite setbacks and sustained opposition from remnants of the old regime in the judiciary and parliament, things had been getting gradually better. My government inherited what the World Bank described as “the worst economic conditions of any country undergoing democratic reform since the 1950s,” yet with the help of the International Monetary Fund we managed to slash the budget deficit from 22 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 to 9 percent last year.
Moreover, we were on track to deliver on nearly all of our election pledges: a public transport ferry system connecting all of our disparate islands was set up; a pension system for the elderly along with universal health insurance was put in place; the country’s first university was established; import duties on staple goods were removed; and drug addicts, of which the Maldives regrettably has many, were no longer treated as criminals but as victims in need of care and rehabilitation.
To help pay for the creation of a basic social safety net, a modern taxation system was also created. A “goods and services tax” was established, as was a corporation tax to provide a secure basis for government finances. And this year, we were planning to introduce a small income tax for the first time in the country’s history.
We also tried to reform the judiciary. Many judges remained under the effective control of the former regime and were blocking corruption and embezzlement cases involving members of Gayoom’s administration. This January, in a move that proved controversial, I ordered the military to arrest a notorious Criminal Court judge, who had quashed his own police arrest warrant, after he was found guilty of misconduct by the Judicial Services Commission – the body responsible for monitoring judges’ behavior.
The government requested the Commonwealth and the United Nations to intervene and help reform the judiciary root and branch. Following the arrest warrant, some of Gayoom’s supporters staged nightly protests calling for the judge’s release but the numbers protesting on the streets were small, just 200-400. Little did my government know the enormity of what they were plotting.