With the swearing-in of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in early June, Egypt has
turned full circle. This is just the latest version of a familiar and depressing
tale. After all the hope, optimism, and national pride that followed the
revolution and the successful overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's bloody 30-year rule,
Egyptians are back to square one: Another military strongman has won another
contested election, while his political opponents are either in hiding, in
jail, or in their graves.
in Egypt are similar to those in my own country, the Maldives. We, too, suffered at
the hands of a dictator for three decades. We, too, had our own peaceful
revolution that swept away the old regime and ushered in new democracy. In
2012, that democracy was snatched away from us by a coup d'état. Since then, we
have seen our freedoms and our electoral process undermined.
experiences of the Maldives and the Arab Spring countries highlight the
difficulty of embedding democracy
in Muslim nations that have long been governed by authoritarian regimes.
Overthrowing the dictator is hard enough, but for democrats, securing
the long-term gains of the revolution is proving more challenging.
because you've pulled out the weeds doesn't mean that flowers will grow. Like a
garden, democracy must be planted and nurtured -- or the weeds will grow back
stronger than ever.
own experience -- as, in turn, a democracy activist, the Maldives' first
democratically elected president, and the victim of a coup -- one of the most
important things democrats must do early on is to build a political party
around a unified cause; this is a task at which the Egyptian liberals fell
needs infrastructure in place to implement it. Political parties are the most
important institution in a new democracy; they are the necessary nuts and bolts,
the means for delivering democracy. Once established, they force their members
to learn the new tools of contesting democratic power: grassroots mobilization,
policy formulation, election campaigning, media relations, and so on. This
process embeds democratic principles among large sections of the population,
which in turn creates extra pressure for more democratic reform.
Maldivians decided they'd had enough of their dictatorship, a number of activists,
including myself, slipped out of the country and formed the Maldivian
Democratic Party (MDP). In those days, back in 2004, political parties were
banned in the Maldives, so operating in exile was our only option. We could
have focused all our energy on fomenting street protests, but we recognized
that there was no point overthrowing the regime if we weren't in a position to
win an election or govern properly. When the Maldivian dictator, Maumoon Abdul
Gayoom, begrudgingly allowed competitive elections in 2008, the MDP was an
established political party. We won the presidential election with 54 percent
of the vote.
contrast, Egyptian liberals focused their attention on bringing down Mubarak.
They were successful, and we all held our breath at the prospect of a free and
democratic Egypt. But once Mubarak fell, the liberals found that they didn't
have a strong, unified political party that could successfully
compete in the ensuing elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had run an
underground political machine for decades, swooped in and clinched victory. So
the most important lesson for aspiring democrats, before anything else, is
this: Focus on building your political party.
creation of successful political parties, though, is rarely enough to properly
embed democracy. This brings me to my second lesson: Beware of judges. In
the Maldives, like Egypt, the former dictator appointed all of the sitting
judges. These judges, loyal to the old guard, hell-bent on maintaining their
power, and steeped in anti-democratic ideology, actively undermined the new
democracy. Judges blocked revenue-raising measures, protected members of the
former regime from corruption probes, and granted themselves ever more power.
In the Maldives, a new constitution passed in 2008, granting judges
independence, as part of the separation of powers.
like giving Dracula the keys to the blood bank, this decision gave unfettered
power to a judiciary that is rotten to the core. This problem still haunts the
Maldives. In last year's presidential elections, for instance, the Supreme
Court constantly meddled in the vote to favor old-guard candidates, annulling and postponing
votes, intimidating the Elections Commission, and making up the law
as they went along. Ahead of parliamentary elections earlier this year, the court was at it again, sacking the Elections
Commission chief and threatening his staff.
a corrupt, but independent, judiciary is particularly challenging for new
rulers. The international community is largely clueless about how to deal with
the problem. In the Maldives, for instance, the one organization that should
have helped, the United Nations, instead considered judicial independence to
be sacrosanct --
a misguided approach that treated poorly educated, corrupt, and often criminal
judges as if they were U.S. Supreme Court justices. Kenya may provide a better
example of the sort of radical judicial reform needed in post-revolution or, in
its case, post-conflict societies. In Kenya, the new government, with
international support, overhauled its judiciary and established an
independent "Vetting of Judges and Magistrates Board." Unqualified,
incompetent, or corrupt judges were removed from office. Whatever the method,
the international community needs a new approach for dealing with inherited
judiciaries in fledgling democracies.
brings me to my third and final lesson: Never give up. Democratic movements
need patience, optimism, and determination. People often ask me how I remain
optimistic about the future of my island country, with respect to both its
democratic trajectory and its survival in the face of rising sea levels (the Maldives
is one of the world's lowest-lying nations). But when you choose to be a
democracy activist in an authoritarian regime, or indeed a proponent of firm
action to combat
climate change, you have little choice but to remain optimistic. The
alternative is too bleak.
applies to everyone, from Egyptian liberals, to Maldivian human rights
defenders, to pro-democracy activists in countries like Burma and Libya: Never
give up -- and never assume that your cause is lost. Even when you face
disappointment, there are usually unexplored avenues through which you can
continue the struggle. In September 2013, after my party won the first round of presidential
elections, the Maldives Supreme Court annulled
the vote and got the Elections Commission to re-run the elections as many times
as it took for our party to lose.* (The photo above shows Mohamed Nasheed at a protest to demand a run-off vote in Male.) After all this, some Maldivians told me that
they felt despair over the future of their country. I responded: "Don't
presume that this is the end of the book. We're only in the middle of the
story. Don't be so hasty as to predict how the story will end."
Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister of Sri Lanka, once told me:
"When the music stops, you must sit [down]." This may be true for
political leaders, but not for democracy activists. Authoritarian regimes are
more fragile than they appear. With a little push, they often collapse under
the weight of their own contradictions. So be tenacious, strategic, and, above
peaceful and legitimate transfer of power is the defining characteristic of
functioning democracy; it is how society grows and develops, and it is the
overarching goal of any pro-democracy activist. During President Obama's second
inauguration I heard a speech that, coming less than a year after the Maldives'
coup, sent a chill down my spine. Senator Lamar Alexander summed up everything
democracy activists should strive for: the regular transfer of power, through
peaceful and legitimate means. He said: "There is no mob, no coup, no
insurrection. This is a moment when millions stop and watch." For
democracy activists around the world, huddled in their cafés or counting down
the days in their prison cell, it is this moment that makes it all worthwhile.
*Correction, June 27, 2014: Mohamed Nasheed won the first round election with a plurality. The election required a second round vote. The article previously suggested he won the presidency outright. (Return to reading.)
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