Comment: Don’t walk like a Maldivian – what Egyptians can learn from us

Egypt has us all riveted. The images of its revolution are particularly poignant for Maldivians: some of us are reliving moments when a dream came true; others are having nightmares about when their ambitions for perpetual rule ended. We see reflected in Egyptian faces the same passion with which we wanted change, we identify with them. The shared political trajectory of Gayoom and Mubarak, the Egyptians and us, has been the talk of the town for the last few days.

Let us hope though, for the sake of the Egyptian people, that once they manage to remove Mubarak and replace his regime with democratic rule, we part ways – the Egyptians and the Maldivians. If not, what we see when we look at us now, is what they will see happening to them in the next few years. Seen in the hindsight we can offer as foresight to our Egyptian counterparts, their future bears very little resemblance to the ideals motivating their present:

The dictator will be gone from office, but his old regime will retain power by occupying a majority of both the legislature and the judiciary, as well as other positions of influence within society. Having negotiated immunity as a condition of departure from office, the dictator, his assets, and that of his family and cronies, will remain untouchable by law. Not satisfied, he will keep trying to return to office, his fists feeling the absence of power like an amputee feels the missing limb.

It is not he, however, who will ultimately succeed in diverting the winds of change. That will be accomplished by the remaining elite of his regime – the businessmen, politicians, family members, and civil servants in the gigantic public sector he built – who benefitted [and benefits still] from the structures he left in his wake. They will deliberately and systematically murder the hopes that lived and breathed in those clamouring for democracy.

They will turn the parliament into a stock market, buying and selling votes, legislation, and people’s rights. They will increase their own salaries, and pass legislation giving themselves immunity from prosecution, freedom from past convictions and privileges beyond the common man’s most uncommon dream. They will come to regard the parliament as their own property to such an extent that building high walls and barbed wire fences around its premises will seem natural, justified and right.

In the judiciary, loyalty to the old regime will be the main criteria for deciding an individual’s fitness for the bench. Rules of the dictator’s handbook will be what count as jurisprudence. Many called to the bar would have been groomed for a particular purpose: to manipulate the letter of the law – to knot every i and twist every t – until whatever project the new regime has planned can be interpreted as void. The spirit of the law will be long dead. Reform will not just be a dirty word, it will lack legitimacy and can be lawfully thwarted.

Meanwhile, the executive, headed by the new president who is the human symbol of the change that people agitated for, will become a prisoner of his own success. The manipulations of the other two branches of power will put him in the position of a lame duck president so often, it will seem natural to dive into water to sign some of his most radical agendas into policy.

He will still remain passionate about democracy, he will believe in it, and he will want to put it into practice. He will come to realise, however, that the autocue does not have the power of a megaphone; government announcements do not read like dissident pamphlets; and words, when spun by political machinery, does not have the same power to move as when spoken from the heart. He will be forced to accept, like many other leaders before him: it is often easier to instigate democratic reforms from within the bars of a prison cell than from within the confines of executive office.

To complicate matters further, religion – entirely outside of human reason on which liberalism rests – will be added to the mix. With the support of the old regime that only concerned itself with faith in so far as its ability to transform worshippers into voters, politico-religious players will come to the forefront of the battle over change. What the dictator had wanted was total control, what the self-appointed ambassadors of God will want is total submission. They will re-cast every act of reform as a secular sin until the new regime is forced into shelving yet another reformation project for a later date, perhaps until such a time as the hypothesis of evolution is proven beyond all unreasonable doubt.

In the aftermath of the violent American project for Enduring Freedom, Egypt, and the rest of the Arabic countries in revolt, have taught the world a valuable lesson: democracy cannot be forced on people with superior military might, political coercion or harsh punishment. Democracy can only come, and comes only, when people want it.

What the Egyptians can learn from us is that democracy, once won, can only be sustained if people continue to want it badly enough.

For Egypt and the Maldives to continue sharing the same page in political history, one of two things has to happen: Egyptians will have to allow their revolution to be hijacked by the old regime; or Maldivians will have to rekindle the fires of their own revolution and reclaim the democracy we fought for.

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