The Lesson of the Maldives: Can a Coup Win?

TIME speaks to former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed as he resumes his battle for the political future of the archipelago nation

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Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Supporters of former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed clash with soldiers during a protest in Male, Sept. 1, 2012.

In a part of the world not lacking in unstable, politically fractious countries, it’s easy to overlook the Maldives. But the Indian Ocean archipelago state of under 400,000 people, known for its paradisiacal atolls and honeymoon hotels, has gone through months of turmoil after democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed was unseated by what some observers deemed a coup in February. Prominent figures in the three-decade-old dictatorship that preceded Nasheed’s government have insinuated themselves back into the frame. All the while, human-rights groups have documented systematic abuse by security forces allied to the current regime.

“The police seem to think they’ve impunity,” says Nasheed, who spoke to TIME over the phone from the Maldivian capital, Male. “They’ve gone on the rampage and beaten up so many activists and reporters.” An Amnesty International report published earlier this month charted “a campaign of violent repression” against Nasheed’s supporters and the country’s nascent civil society. Protesters have been met with egregious force and subject to arbitrary arrests. “The picture [these actions] paint,” reads the report, “is completely at odds with the tranquility of the waters and scenic islands of this elegant archipelago.”

(MORE: The Fall of the Island President: The Maldives’ Nasheed Steps Down)

More than two decades earlier, Amnesty International hailed Nasheed a prisoner of conscience, a democracy activist who had languished in the jails of the dictatorship of then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The relentless campaigning of Nasheed and his allies eventually won the country its first free and fair presidential election in 2008, which Nasheed won after a runoff. But the years that followed proved difficult for Nasheed, who found his attempts to introduce deep institutional reforms stymied by elements of the ancien régime and an increasingly influential hard-line Islamist wing in government, as well as some of his own political missteps. The putsch that forced him out of power on Feb. 7, allegedly coordinated by security forces and opposition politicians, seemed to snuff out one of the more inspiring democratic success stories in the Muslim world. (For further background on Nasheed’s rise and fall, see my pieces here, here and here.)

Nasheed says the new government, led by his former deputy, Mohammed Waheed, knows that it would lose an election to Nasheed and his allies if it was held in the near future and is doing what it can to create conditions tilted in their favor. “It’s perfectly mapped now, they’ve got all their people exactly in the places they want,” says Nasheed, who speculates that relatives of the septuagenarian Gayoom will challenge soon for the presidency. Meanwhile, a worrying trend has developed in the once laissez-faire archipelago: a strain of Saudi-funded Wahhabi Islam has taken root. Islamists were at the forefront of those calling for Nasheed’s removal from power; some even attempted to brand him a blasphemer, a loaded charge in a country that’s technically 100% Sunni Muslim. This past week, the country’s Islamic Ministry issued an order prohibiting mixed-gender dancing, while Maldivian protesters angered by the fringe American film Innocence of Muslims attempted to storm the U.N. headquarters in Male, wielding placards that read, among other slogans, “Maldives: Future Graveyard for Americans and Jews.”

(PHOTOS: Travels Through Islam: Memory of the Maldives)

Despite the considerable wellspring of sympathy and support, Nasheed has received from outside observers familiar and engaged with Maldivian political life, foreign governments have largely accepted the archipelago’s new status quo. A governmental report published in August by the nominally independent Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), aimed at establishing what happened in the tumultuous weeks before Nasheed’s ouster, declared that his departure was voluntary, not forced. Nasheed, in an op-ed in the Huffington Post, claimed that the CoNI was “dominated by hand-picked appointees of the coup-installed government” and essentially “whitewashed” the coup. Still, both the Commonwealth and the U.S. State Department have welcomed the report’s release.

Nasheed sounds at a loss when trying to explain the disinterest of foreign powers in the democracy project many had ostentatiously backed in 2008. “Thanks for the international community, we’re back at square one again,” he tells TIME. “The U.S. has decided that nurturing democracy in the Maldives is not important to them.” Ever a battler, though, he insists “the story is not over.” His Maldivian Democratic Party will bide its time and seek to take advantage of growing splits among the motley forces once aligned against them. If there had been robust international engagement, says Nasheed, with countries like the U.S. and India taking an active role in bolstering the Maldives’ fledgling democratic institutions, then such cynical politics wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, says the former President, the next political chapter for the troubled state “is going to be done now in the traditional, feudal Maldives style.” Even if that result is positive for Nasheed and his supporters, it’s not a victory they ever wanted.

MORE: 10 Questions for Mohamed Nasheed