Lessons for the Arab Spring from a Tiny Island Nation

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A Maldivian family wades in a lagoon as they catch fish in Addu, in Maldives, November 7, 2011. The heads of eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries are meeting in this Indian Ocean archipelago on Nov. 10 and 11. (Photo: Eranga Jayawardena / AP)


With Tunisian elections just completed, Egypt’s parliamentary elections coming up and Libya veering into a dark new period, observers of the Arab Spring are wondering what will become of these revolutions once the euphoria subsides and the struggle over democracy grows apace.

There is one corner of South Asia where these questions hit particularly close to home — the Maldives — where the heads of state of every country in the region will meet for the SAARC summit this week. This tiny nation, a collection of 26 atolls just southwest of India’s southern tip, is best known as a canary-in-the-coalmine for climate change. The media savvy president, Mohamed Nasheed,  famously held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009 to publicize the threat posed by global warming to vulnerable countries like his. The Maldives might be just as interesting, though, as a different kind of bellwether —for other Muslim-majority countries emerging from years of dictatorship. In October 2008, voters in this 100% Sunni Muslim nation decisively threw out Maumoon Gayoom, the man who had ruled the Maldives for 30 years, making him Asia’s longest-serving ruler. The 41-year-old Nasheed, a human rights activist and longtime critic of the regime, became president, riding a euphoric wave of idealism. As one of his allies told my colleague Ishaan Tharoor, “We are not interested in revenge. Now is the time to look to our future.”

So what’s happened to the Maldives since then? On a visit there earlier this year, I found a country that was roiled with protests over rising prices and joblessness, where many people were deeply uneasy about the new prominence enjoyed by Islamists and where the former dictator’s presence still loomed large.

(READ: The Maldives’ struggle to stay afloat and TIME’s interview with President Nasheed.)

Despite those challenges, its new democracy is firmly in place. Every country will take its own path, but there are some useful lessons:

1. Don’t be afraid of the Islamists. In the Maldives, the conservative Islamist Adhaalath Party was until recently a key political ally of Nasheed’s government. The partnership, while it lasted, wasn’t easy. To keep the Islamists happy, for example, Nasheed did little to change the country’s extremely punitive apostasy laws. In an interview with me in Malé, Ahmed Shaheed, a top foreign policy official in Nasheed’s government, explained the rationale for working with the Islamists — their grassroots appeal:

That’s where the mullahs excel. On a daily basis they talk to them, five daily prayers, other events, in constant touch with them and as Muslim people who want to know about Islam,  about rituals and so on so there is a lot of contact between the mullahs and these lot.

It turned out that their popular support in local elections wasn’t as strong as anticipated. But the Islamists aren’t just a political force; they’ve also been pushing for the establishment of religious schools, and for expanding the extensive links between madrassas in Pakistan and students from the Maldives. For all those reasons, Nasheed wanted to keep the Islamists involved in the political process, rather than allowing them to develop into a separate, unaccountable power center. At least for now, the strategy seems to be working. I spoke to Ibrahim Fauzee, head of the extremely conservative Islamic Foundation of the Maldives and a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay (he was picked up in Pakistan in 2002 and repatriated without charges after three years). He does not, however, challenge the legitimacy of Nasheed’s government. He told me:

Now we have much more freedom, because we are opening our eyes to the world, following democracy. The nation is going to accept democracy. It’s encouraging us to promote religious activities. We can hold programs. Before, it’s not easy to arrange events in open areas.

Those events and programs sometimes make liberal Maldivians shudder. The radical preacher Zakir Naik (said to have inspired the accused would-be American militant Najibullah Zazi) spoke to a crowd of thousands in Malé last year, at the invitation of the Islamic Foundation. The real test will come now, with the Adhaalath Party in the opposition.

2. Do worry about the economy. During the first week of May, the capital city of Malé went through a week of nightly protests, in which young people filled the narrow streets to express their anger over the government’s decision to partially float the rufiyaa (the local currency), a move that led to a sudden drop in its value and a spike in prices. Many in the government suspected that the protests were organized by opposition parties; whether that’s true of not, it was a wake-up call for the government. “It was ironic because in the Middle East we saw people wanting to bring down dictators, and here it is the other way round,” press secretary Mohamed Zuhair told me. “We have already brought down the dictator. Probably what happens here might play out in the Middle East.” The lesson for the Arab Spring? The economic protests that started it all may yet reappear.

3. Be ready for ghosts. After he was ousted from power, former president Gayoom wasn’t killed or exiled; he still lives in the capital, Malé, and is still a leader of the Progressive Party of the Maldives. He may never be elected president again, but he still wields an enormous amount of influence — most Maldivians have never known any other leader. Even officials in the government sometimes find it hard to hide their animosity toward the man whom they blame for decades of human rights abuses. The persistence of Gayoom’s influence turned into a violent clash on Oct. 20 at a protest outside his house between supporters of Gayoom and Nasheed’s party, the MDP. As Minivan News reported:

Earlier in the day, the MDP national council conducted an emergency meeting and approved a resolution to launch a protest against the judiciary, claiming judges were unduly influenced by the former President [Gayoom] and his half-brother MP Abdulla Yameen.

When a dictator rules for 30 years, his support networks don’t dry up overnight.

4. Expect pragmatic foreign policy. During Gayoom’s rule, foreign policy was largely put to the service of keeping him in power. In 1988, when faced with a coup d’etat, Gayoom invited the Indian military in to help him. India obligingly sent in paratroopers and put down the rebellion within a matter of hours, further strengthening the Gayoom regime’s ties with India. Of course, that didn’t stop him from also courting Pakistan — where thousands of Maldivians students have studied in madrassas. Since the new government came to office, those two relationships are still by far the most important. India is the acknowledged regional superpower, although its economic support is now much more important than its military support. And until the Maldives expands and improves its schools, devout Maldivian families will continue to send their children to Pakistani madrassas in the absence of any better option.

5. Create strong institutions, not just governments. Perhaps the most important lesson — one that I heard over and over in my conversations with Maldivians — is that after dramatic political change, a country has to turn its attention to civil society. The nature of any authoritarian regime is that it extends itself into every institution — from schools to the media to the police and judiciary. The hard work of the post-revolution revolutionaries is taking those institutions back and making them truly independent. One of the most inspiring people I met was Aminath Arif, founder of the Salaam School and a longtime campaigner for education and women’s rights. She was full of creative ideas to improve the skills and employability of young people in the Maldives so the all-important tourism industry wouldn’t need to bring in so many guest workers. She even supported the radical idea of relocating most of the country’s populations to the two largest islands, to make it more feasible for the government to build bigger, better primary schools. Sadly, she died in July after suffering burns in an accident. Her work, and that of the Maldives’ new democracy, continues.

Jyoti Thottam is TIME’s South Asia Bureau Chief, based in New Delhi. Find her on Twitter at @jyotithottam. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.

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