The democratic aspirations of many countries around the world rising against authoritarian regimes early last year was, at the time, an uprising many thought would bring progressive change to the political systems in those countries.
It came to fruition through the voice of youth; educated young individuals affronted by meager job opportunities and other socio-economic inequalities perpetrated by the oligarchic superstructures entrenched in these countries.
This was the true spirit of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. The scattered archipelago of the Maldives, in South Asia with its coastlines in the Arabian Sea had the first ever peaceful transition into democracy by a Muslim-majority country in August 2008, a precursor to the events in the Middle East last year. However, a year later the stories from Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia do not resonate with the ambitions of the resistance movements seen throughout the Middle East last spring.
In Egypt, former autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak first came to power three years after Maumoon Abdul Gayoom did in the Maldives.
Mubarak was deposed in a popular uprising backed by the military – a conclusion unfathomable to many, even in the most well-informed US diplomatic circles. Although defiant developments, these ‘Black Swan’ moments of history (as coined by Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb) have proven to be more beneficial towards Islamists and the elite, rather than the young liberal movement with political and economic grievances who initiated, organised and executed the revolts.
When Cairo was bustling with news of elections in June this year, military and powerful businessmen still held on to power and the latter continued to monopolise the economy. In the weeks leading up to the elections, confrontations between civilians and the military regime in power turned violent. An onslaught of police brutality and violation of fundamental rights directed systematically towards pro-democracy protesters took place in all of the Arab Spring countries. Rampant instances of human rights abuse in the Maldives following the dubious transfer of power in February have been repeatedly condemned by Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Reporters Without Borders and many other international organizations. A group of Maldivian women who were arrested earlier this year alleged that police sexually harassed them whilst they were under police custody. International bodies have called for investigation into all these accesses by the police but to no avail.
If there is a pattern to be realised, it is that the ruling elite and their grip on the leading elements of the military – formed through years of power -seem to plunder the determination of the people in these countries to have a genuine democracy.
Similarly to the Egypt, in the Maldives the power vacuum left over after the removal of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was filled by Islamists and Gayoom loyalists.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s engagement with Egyptians has been a long and significant since its establishment in 1928. The Adhaalath Party, an Islamist party in the Maldives, has little akin to the Muslim Brotherhood in that regard. The party joined the December 23rd coalition made up of the then opposition parties. The coalition was made up of Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP); the former dictator’s neophyte attempt at multi-party politics which he later defected.
He then created the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), while his family friend, businessman-come-politician Gasim Ibrahim, created the Jumhoree Party (JP), while the Dhivehi Qaumy Party (DQP) was created by Dr Hassan Saeed and Mohamed Jameel Ahmed who held cabinet portfolios under both Gayoom and Nasheed’s administration. It was this coalition of dictator loyalists who created a religiose Maldivian ‘rally round the flag’ effect that aided the military and police backed coup.
In the case of the Middle East, the transition seemed sudden and spontaneous. The Maldives deposed the three-decade dictator through the first ever multi-party democratic elections in the country in October 2008 as prescribed in a new Constitution which came to effect in August that same year. Mohamed Nasheed came into power with a citizen-centric manifesto with development and social welfare pledges.
It could be seen as the inexorable result of slow, erratic outbursts of civil unrest that began with the death of Evan Naseem under police custody in 2003. His death caused the highly restricted yet obsequious Malé and nearby islands to be worked into a fervor unheard of under Gayoom’s autocratic rule, apart from sporadic uproars in the 1980s.
Again in 2004 Nasheed’s arrest sparked another nationwide resistance. Gayoom was forced to embark on a reform agenda due to local and international pressure, which intensified due to economic upheaval following the 2004 tsunami. Mubarak’s stronghold on the judiciary weakened and pressure for judicial reform came a year before Gayoom came under pressure to initiate judicial and constitutional reform in 2004.
Eventually in four years a democratic Constitution with separation of powers, independent institutions and a bill of rights was enacted.
The reversal of the hard-earned democratic transition however came quite precipitously when police and military mutinied. The result was a dubious power transfer believed by majority of Maldivians to be a ‘televised coup d’état’ against democratically elected government. In Egypt, Mubarak’s loyal military did the opposite by siding with majority of Egyptians last year.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and the Maldives the similarity is the patrimonial style of governance, however historically and culturally these countries differ greatly. Former French colony Tunisia is culturally and aesthetically more westernised than its counterparts. Libya and Syria have more potential for continued sectarian conflict. Nonetheless, the political discourses of Egypt and the Maldives are more similar compared to the dynamics of the other Arab Spring countries.
The propensity for Islamism however differs at present. The Adhaalath Party does not have any seats in the People’s Majlis, whereas Muslim Brotherhood, Al Nour and Salafists have secured a majority of Egypt’s parliament. It is difficult to tell if Islamists will benefit to a similar extent in the Maldives during next year’s parliamentary elections, but given the social and cultural rise in fundamentalism it is probable in the near future.
The military’s role in transitions and socio-economic disparities further exacerbated through patrimonial form of government are also shared themes between the two countries. Gayoom and his predecessors ruled the Maldives in a highly centralised form of government which translated into systemic inequalities between the capital Malé and the outer islands. These were the disparities the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s manifesto sought to alleviate, however many development projects and the free health care system initiated by the MDP have now been discontinued.
The first democratically elected President Nasheed of the Maldives has been on trial since August this year with civil and criminal allegations against him. His party and supporters maintain that the charges are politically motivated to stop him from contesting in next year’s elections.
Meanwhile citizens who protested the legitimacy of Mohamed Waheed’s post-‘coup’ government in February are also being prosecuted nationwide. In all countries authoritarianism is prevalent following the hopeful spring last year. The crackdown on dissent this year has been exceptionally brutal in the Middle East. It is clear that post-colonial nations have been unable to reform their police and military to serve their citizens.
In Egypt the military might have done what was popular amongst its citizens but in no way does it discount their self-interest. Security forces continue to make political decisions as they were trained to do during the colonial era. The Arab Spring that started at the end of 2010 and bloomed to full glory in 2011 may have brought with it much hope, but since the ousting of their respective symbolic autocrats, neither the system of government nor the politicised police and military have democratised. This failure is making possible the resurgence of authoritarianism and an increasingly Islamist future for the region just as it has done in the Maldives.
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