Arab Spring, Authoritarian Winter

By Mushfique Mohamed

Democratic aspirations of many countries around the world rising against authoritarian regimes early last year was a development many thought would bring progressive change to the political systems in those countries.

It came to fruition with the voice of the youth; educated young individuals affronted by the meager job opportunities and other socio-economic inequalities permeated by the oligarchic superstructure 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 to democracy by a Muslim majority country in August 2008. It was a precursor to the events in the Middle East last year. A year later, however, the events in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, no longer resonate with the ambitions of the resistance movements seen throughout the Middle East last spring.

In Egypt, former autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak—who first came to power three years after Maumoon Abdul Gayoom did in the Maldives—was deposed with a popular uprising backed by the military. It was an event 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 more beneficial for Islamists and the elite than for the young liberal movement with its political and economic grievances that initiated, organised and executed the revolts.

When Cairo was bustling with news of elections in June this year, the 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 protestors took place in all of the Arab Spring countries.

Similarly, rampant instances of human rights abuse in the Maldives following the dubious transfer of power in February have been repeatedly condemned by Amnesty International, 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 allege that police personnel sexually harassed them whilst under police custody. International bodies have called for investigations into all these excesses by the police 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—which had hardened through years of power—seem to plunder the determination of the people in these countries to have a genuine democracy.

Just as in Egypt, in the Maldives too, the power vacuum left behind by the removal of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was filled by loyalists of the former regime and Islamists.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s engagement with Egyptians has been a long and significant one since its establishment in 1928. Adhaalath Party, the leading Islamist party in the Maldives, has little in common with the Muslim Brotherhood in this regard. The party joined the December 23rd coalition made up of the then opposition parties:  Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), former dictator Gayoom’s neophyte attempt at multi-party politics from which he later defected; the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)  which Gayoom then created; Jumhoori Party of businessman cum politician cum tourism tycoon Gasim Ibrahim, also a family friend of Gayoom; and Dhivehi Qaumy Party (DQP) of Dr. Hassan Saeed and Mohamed Jameel Ahmed who held cabinet portfolios under both Gayoom and Nasheed’s administrations. It was this coalition of dictator loyalists that created a religiose Maldivian ‘rally ‘round the flag’ effect that aided the military and police backed coup.

In the Middle East, the transitions seemed sudden, unexpected 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 to power with a citizen-centric manifesto with development and social welfare pledges. It can be seen as the inexorable result of slow, erratic outbursts of civil unrest that began with the death of Evan Naseem, a young prisoner under police custody in 2003.

His death caused the highly restricted yet obsequious Malé and nearby islands to be worked up 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 increased local and international pressure during the economic upheaval that followed 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 in the Maldives.

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 the democratically elected government.

In Egypt, Mubarak’s loyal military did the opposite by siding with majority of Egyptians last year.

Despite the great historical and cultural differences between Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and the Maldives, they all have in common patrimonialism as a system of governance. Former French colony Tunisia is culturally and aesthetically more westernized than its counterparts. Libya and Syria have more potential for continued sectarian conflict.

The political discourses of Egypt and the Maldives are more similar compared to the dynamics of other Arab Spring countries. Nonetheless, there are differences in the two countries’ shared propensity for Islamism.

Adhaalath Party does not have any seats in the People’s Majlis, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Nour and Salafists have secured a majority in Egypt’s parliament. It is difficult to say if Islamists would 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 patrimonialism, are also shared themes between the two countries. Gayoom and his predecessors ruled the Maldives in a highly centralised form of government which manifested in systemic inequalities between the capital Malé and the outer islands.

These were the disparities the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) manifesto sought to alleviate. But, 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, charged with various civil and criminal offences. His party and supporters maintain that the charges are politically motivated to stop him from contesting in next year’s elections. Meanwhile, citizens who protest the legitimacy of Mohamed Waheed’s post-‘coup’ government in February are also being prosecuted nationwide.

In all the countries where last year’s spring appeared so full of hope, this year authoritarianism has become prevalent. The crackdown on dissent 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 its citizens. In Egypt they 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  politicized 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.

Mushfique Mohamed has an MscEcon in Postcolonial Politics from Aberystwyth University


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