Mohamed Nasheed was in New York City this week promoting The Island President, a new documentary film about his beautiful archipelago nation, the Maldives, and its perilous struggle against climate change. The documentary follows Nasheed, a former democracy activist imprisoned and tortured by the Maldives’ three-decade-old dictatorship, during his first year as President; in landmark 2008 polls, he won the Maldives’ first free and fair elections. Nasheed and I met in the capital, Male, soon after that victory. But the years since have proved difficult. In February, he was forced out after cadres in the police and military still loyal to the old regime rebelled. Nasheed spoke to TIME about the nature of the coup and his hopes and fears for his troubled nation.
In February, you were forced to resign following what many say was a coup fomented by those loyal to the old dictatorship of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Was there nothing popular about the movement against you?
Where are the flowers? Where are the people behind them? Let me see one person coming out on the street and being happy about it. And look at the amount of people coming out in our favor, in our support. There’s no popularity in the coup. It’s just a group of people who schemed it out. And it was perfectly done. To the extent that before doing it they had already consulted the international community, saying, “There might be changes in the Maldives soon.” I’ve been hearing from friendly governments that this had been talked about. When this change happened, the narrative was already there.
You were cornered by the military, who threatened violence. Were you scared for your life?
I was very scared for my life. I was on the brink of it. I’ve been tortured twice [as a democracy activist]. I’ve been brought to the brink. This is the third time. It’s really quite a bad sensation.
The new regime has been reined back a bit, though, and your movement is relatively free when in the Maldives.
I’m under constant watch, but because there’s so many people around me, supporting me, they’re finding it very difficult to curb my activities.
So, after all the optimism that surrounded your victory in the country’s first free elections in 2008, what happened?
You can get rid of a dictator, but you can’t get rid of a dictatorship. You can get rid of a person very easily, but the networks, the intricacies, the establishments — you have to flush them. And to do that is not an easy thing. We have to be mindful with other countries going down the same line — for instance, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya. They’ll have good elections, they’ll probably come up with a better leader. But then the dictatorship will always try to come back. And it’s going to be impossible to hold them from coming back from within the system.
You specifically said then that you didn’t want to go after the vestiges of the old regime.
We didn’t want to go on a witch hunt. We didn’t want to purge the military, we didn’t want to purge the police.
Do you regret not doing that?
It was just not enough time. The lesson is we didn’t deal with Gayoom. That’s the obvious lesson. And my romantic ideas of how to deal with a dictator were wrong. I will agree with that.
There were mistakes. One thing the international community finds it difficult to understand was the arresting of a judge. The last [straw] was when he asked a child to re-enact a child-abuse case in the court. The whole country was disgusted by it. The very next week, he gives an order for a murderer to be released because the Ministry of Health didn’t have a death certificate. And then [the released man] goes out and murders again. It was like releasing a hit man so he could go out and make another hit. The whole picture was getting very, very clear with gangs, drug dealers and with Gayoom and his cronies. [Editor's note: The judge in question, Abdulla Mohamed, remains the Chief Judge of the Maldives Criminal Court and is widely known for his close ties to the Gayoom regime. His controversial arrest led to the street violence and unrest that formed the backdrop of the coup against Nasheed's rule. Mohamed has been the subject of legal investigations dating back to 2005.]
So [the way to] deal with this would be greater international assistance in reforming these institutions. Unfortunately, I kept on asking everyone — the Commonwealth, the E.U., the Indian government — to assist us in reforming the judiciary. But they were very late in coming. And we didn’t get the necessary help from them.
Also we were bringing in reforms very rapidly. We were liberalizing the outlook of the country very, very rapidly. Especially with Islamic radicalism. Our ideas of moderation, the moderate Islam — there were some small, entrenched sections that reacted strongly against me.
How widespread was this religious opposition?
There were religious extremists in the military. I didn’t think they were under a single command. I thought they were odd people here and there. But there was a core of radical Islamists who fueled the coup through media and harping on about how un-Islamic I am. I must confess, I’m not the most pious of the people. But I am a strong believer.
Gayoom’s family and friends have entered the new government. What are his plans?
His designs are to have a stronger hold on power. He would avoid an election. I am sure he would avoid the scheduled election in 2013 as well. He’d try to push back the elections as much as they can. He would talk in words that the international community will like. We had elections in 2008, 2009, 2011 that were all free and fair. Suddenly the U.S. government is saying, “Oh, as Gayoom says, there might be a problem with the election commission.” This is very strange. At the same time, [Gayoom] will start running things through the military. My fear is that we’re not going back to pre-2008 Maldives. We’re going back to pre-2008 other countries, to Pakistan, perhaps, where the military becomes so strong that they call the shots.
Will Gayoom try to return as President?
I think so. When he thinks it’s in his hand, when he feels the field is skewed enough in his favor.
You want new elections to be held now. Are you confident you would win?
I am very, very confident that the people will decide upon us. And the thing is not who wins an election — it’s the fact that you have to have one. It’s the fact that a government is formed through the people.
India and the U.S., among other countries, seemed to recognize the coup. Are you disappointed by that?
I’m very shocked by the manner in which they behaved. I’m very sad. We did so much to encourage internationalism, encourage liberalism, to bring Indian investment — to get rid of anti-India phobia. We tried to have good relations. But when push came to shove, we ended up in the wrong. Somehow we were not the right people to talk to.
To always back the status quo, always be on the safe side — that doesn’t lead to good governance internationally. If you want to be a regional leader, you must be sensible. And consistent. And you should lead. They should protect democracy, and they should be on the side of democrats and human rights.
What did they tell you?
To go in for a national-unity government. My point is, Why should we try to unify the dictatorship? The coup is not unifying the country — it’s bringing back the old dictatorship. We didn’t want to have a part in it. We beat them in the elections. It’s wrong to talk about governing with Gayoom because he was rejected by the people.
When they found out that the coup was not able to suppress us — that we were still alive and still around and that a unity government was not possible — then they started realigning themselves, said, “Now O.K., we’ll support an early election.” They should have been the first to say it, not me. I really hope that we will smooth things out, and I hope [the Indians] take swift, robust measures that lead to early elections. They have the means to do that.
Would you have welcomed foreign intervention to halt the coup?
In my mind, that’s not how you do it. There were a group of military, about 60 soldiers, who were asking me to open the armory so they could shoot at the [coup-supporting] police. And I said, “No, no, no, we don’t want to do that.” They were saying, “President, the only way for you to survive is to shoot at them.” So I thought, come on, I don’t want to survive after shooting them.
Amid all this, a documentary film of your fight against climate change during your first year in power has just opened in the U.S. What do you hope audiences will take away?
Climate change is very, very real. [The film] brings a personal angle to it. You see the low-lying Maldives and how fragile it is. And it’s not just the Maldives — a third of the world’s population lives in these fragile conditions. What happens to the Maldives will happen to you tomorrow.
Do you think the hopeful, positive lesson that you want the Maldives to teach the world can be salvaged?
We have to win it. We can’t relent. It’s a sad day today. Not all days are sad. We’re against the odds, and we’ve always worked against odds. It’s going to be hard and difficult, but we have to do it. It’s going to be easier than before. We have to focus. We shouldn’t be angry with anyone.