The Maldives used to be a paradise for tourists but not its inhabitants. Honeymooners went there to explore each other, not the country,” writes Moorcraft for South Africa’s Business Day.
“Until 2008, it was the longest-lasting dictatorship in Asia. Then a diminutive but charismatic human rights activist, Mohamed Nasheed (known to everyone as “Anni”), defeated the old dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in the country’s first free elections.
Just 41, the young president was compared with Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, though he told me of his respect for Mahatma Gandhi. I got to know “Anni” when he was an opposition leader who had been imprisoned 23 times, sometimes in solitary confinement, and tortured by the Gayoom regime. I made TV documentaries about him and his beautiful country, an archipelago of more than 1200 islands.
“Anni” had promised he would give me the first TV interview on his first day in power. He kept his word as we chatted in his office, with furious ambassadors from major states pacing outside his office. The islands are strategically placed amid major (oil) shipping lanes, of interest particularly to India and China.
“Not many Islamic countries have had free and fair elections to form a multiparty democracy,” he said. Despite his own mistreatment, he preached forgiveness to the old regime, because it was an Islamic principle and practical politics. He said Mandela and SA’s truth and reconciliation process were his inspiration.
The previous regime had emptied the treasury. “Our finances are in bad shape,” he admitted. “We can’t consolidate democracy if we can’t pay wages.”
He was always a man of his word, but he faced a huge task of rebuilding his country. Nasheed became a green icon worldwide, not least because he held one of his cabinet meetings underwater, with his ministers wearing scuba gear, to publicise the dangers of global warming. He talked to me about eventually relocating his 350000 citizens to Sri Lanka, India or even Australia — as his country sank beneath the waves.
His victory was a beacon to the Islamic world. Free elections and multiparty democracy without a drop of blood spilled and not a single western soldier present.
So why was such an inspirational leader deposed this week? His supporters claim he was ousted in a military and police coup-cum-mutiny, although it was not that simple. The main issue was that he won the presidency but his reformist party was in a minority in parliament — Gayoom’s supporters were in the majority. Cohabitation was difficult. Also the judiciary, largely composed of ill-educated placemen appointed by the old dictator, was often at loggerheads with the new president. Tensions came to a head in the past month, when the army detained a senior criminal court judge.
Economic factors were also in play — like Obama, the new president created a crisis of expectations. Job prospects, especially for the young, did not suddenly improve when he took over. Even some reformers felt that the human rights activist of old was being heavy-handed with his political (or family/clan) opponents. And, crucially, he was attacked by the Islamist right wing, which argued he was too secular. The Islamist parties had never achieved much in electoral terms, but they were influential — as the increasing use of the veil indicated. And even foreign intelligence agencies fretted about Jihadist growth in some of the outlying islands.
Street protests in the past few weeks were met by police crackdowns, and then old-regime elements of the police joined the protesters. Nasheed explained that his only recourse to this was to call in the small and divided army, or resign. It was a bloodless coup.
Nasheed may decide to contest the forthcoming election or not, but the forces of the old regime led by Gayoom, an Egyptian-trained cleric, in alliance with the fundamentalists, could defeat the more secular reformists.
The deposed leader is, in effect, under house arrest, enjoying the “protection” of the army.
Nasheed became a world icon not least for the environmentalists. A stirring movie about his achievements, The Island President, has recently won awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. Perhaps the visionary leader became more popular abroad than at home; a sad comment on a man who promised so much.
As in SA, lesser men are likely to replace the icon.
Moorcraft is a visiting professor at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.