The Male International Airport is unlike anywhere else in the Republic of the Maldives. When I landed in September, I saw hijab-clad women performing security checks on European women with bikinis visible from under their clothes. Bearded men were praying on their mats in the midst of sunburnt revelers with liquor on their breath. But, the other tourists and the Maldivians then took transportation to very different destinations. The tourists hopped on small planes or speedboats to vacation on some of the world’s most utopic beaches, where a “tourism apartheid” isolated them from the country’s political realities and sharia law. With a curiosity about urban life, the local practice of Islam and a budget too humble for the private resorts, I joined the Maldivians on well-worn slow boats heading to the crowded capital of Male.
My first impression at the city’s port was a positive one. Although there was chaotic jostling as passengers unloaded heavy bags and vied for taxis, it felt safe. Colorful buildings had been worn down by the sea air but the narrow streets were clean. Passengers with children found their family members waiting for them and there were hugs and smiles all around. Although no one offered to help me find my way, help that I evidently needed, neither did touts try to take advantage. My general feeling of security continued over the following days. I saw countless women zipping about town alone on motorbikes. Rambunctious groups of school children used pocket change to buy candy they shared among themselves while walking home from class. People of all ages clearly felt free to take leisurely walks at night.
Even after breaking through the subtle system that insulates foreigners, I recently realized that I did not see the real Male at all. I didn’t enter a mosque or an Islamic school; I didn’t attend any political rallies; I didn’t pass any of the housing for the 70,000 imported guest workers who live with few basic rights protections. In fact, my observations were so superficial that I didn’t see evidence that the country was experiencing authoritarian rule and troubling religious radicalization. I certainly could not have predicted the political crisis currently unfolding, one that threatens to destabilize the entire country.
A decade ago, it seemed that democracy was firmly in place. This archipelago nation of 400,000 people off the Indian coast hosted Asia’s longest-serving ruler, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, until voters ousted him in 2008. In the country’s first multiparty election, Maldivians elected Mohamed Nasheed, a former political prisoner and human rights campaigner from the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Voting was relatively unencumbered, a new constitution included broader rights protections, and Nasheed supported greater freedom of expression and association.
The country rode this feel-good wave into the following year. There was another set of fair elections for the legislature and a clear balance of party power in government. Tourism remained strong, feeding almost 40% of GDP. The world was paying more attention to the country’s looming problems from global warming, thanks in large part to Nasheed’s famed underwater cabinet meeting . The populist leader was a darling of the international community. He continued to ambitiously push forward his reformist agenda with big promises. Democracy seemed firmly in place and the Maldives became a model for other Islamic countries struggling to move past autocracy. When the Arab Spring unfolded in 2010, Maldivians and the world pointed to President Nasheed as an example of reform done right.
Yet, Maldivians soon became the only Muslims to protest not against a dictator, but against the very president they had freely elected less than two years earlier.
A democratic dream delayed
The Arab Spring was as much about economic conditions as it was about democratic freedoms. When fiscal challenges resurface after a democratic transition, even in the face of social and political reform, dissent will resurface too. Nasheed was overseeing some unpopular economic policies, including floating the national currency, the rufiyaa, which caused commodity prices to rise. He also took office in the wake of the 2007-2008 world food price crisis  and when the country was still trying to rebuild after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that caused almost $5 billion in damage  in the Maldives.
Most clearly, systemic corruption  continued unbridled. Politicians enriched themselves through real estate sales of entire islands to domestic and international buyers. Three senior officials, including a former vice president, were jailed for embezzling more than US$79 million from the state-run tourism corporation. Perhaps as a lesson to future whistleblowers, the employee who revealed the corruption was himself convicted in a closed trial of data theft and illegal disclosure of information. Nasheed’s administration allegedly granted land, a premium for a population living afloat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, in exchange for political support. In addition to economic issues, increasing conservatism was giving way to concerns that Nasheed was not upholding Islamic ideals, an important issue considering that Sunni Islam is the mandated state religion. An independent local media outlet reported on a demonstration in December 2011 “to defend Islam” that harkened the beginning of a fundamentalist trend now exploited by ISIS.
Nasheed’s public resignation in February 2012, which he claimed was a “religious coup” forced by gunpoint but which opponents say was voluntary, was the last levy holding back the tide of radicalism. The Maldives has been a Muslim nation since the 12th century, but the 2004 tsunami made way for ultra-strict Wahhabis and Salafism from Saudi Arabia to gain traction. Saudi preachers arrived in the wake of the devastation with messages that the natural disaster was a punishment from God, and their ideology easily took root. Although Gayoom banned the hijab and curtailed fundamentalism in the 1980s, the Maldives became more fundamentalist than it had ever been. This radicalization has only continued to gain strength.
Unbeknown to the thousands of tourists who sunbathe and sip daiquiris on private islands, sharia law prevails for all Maldivians and for anyone of any religion within Male. Even under the relatively moderate Nasheed, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs became the sole authority to grant licenses to preachers in 2008, further reifying the relationship between religion and the state. Certain books were banned, including a book written by an opposition presidential candidate and his brother, which officials said contained material that contradicted the principles of Islam. The ministry began blocking Christian websites because they could negatively affect belief in Islam. Imams could only give government-approved sermons. The death penalty can still legally be applied to minors. Hundreds of public floggings, mostly of women for “extramarital fornication,” take place each year.
All citizens are required to be Sunni. Non-Muslim foreigners are allowed to practice their religions only in private, which is challenging for guest workers. I stayed on the island of Hulumale, and became friendly with a Filipina woman working in a restaurant under my hotel. During our friendly chatter, I asked if she had been able to create a sense of community, especially for Christian holidays, with other workers from the Philippines. She said no, she rarely saw anyone outside the square block where she worked and her employer would not like her praying. She told me, “I am Catholic but I have no church to go to here. I do not know if others have a place. I would never pray in front of others here.”
The current president, Abdulla Yameen, in power since the 2013 elections, appears not to oppose this religious fundamentalism — his resistance is aimed only at checks on his own power. He benefits from and stokes the conservatism encompassing his people since Nasheed’s resignation. His resistance to political opposition has created the constitutional crisis  that began to embroil the country on February 1, 2018, and which undergirds its current state of emergency. The state of affairs in the following weeks will be a true test of whether the Maldivian failed attempt at democratization a decade ago can be revived, or whether the short flirtation with democracy was simply a temporary respite from an enduring pattern of dictatorship.
The making of a strongman and his constitutional crisis
Yameen is a model for how weak democracy can become de facto despotism in just a few years. He has taken textbook steps to reverse democratic reforms and buoy his own power through manipulation of the electoral process, the judiciary, police and military, and religious institutions. Tensions surrounding his administration came to a head in February when the judicial branch ruled in favor of his opponents. The timeline of events demonstrates Yameen’s lessons to dictators the world over on how to lock down power. So far, he is succeeding.
Confuse public understanding of events and cloud information:
On February 1, Supreme Court judges, Yameen’s former allies, ruled that the government must release nine political prisoners and reinstate 12 parliamentarians who had defected to the opposition party, Nasheed’s MDP. The decision meant Yameen would have lost his parliamentary majority. In response, Yameen immediately claimed that the court’s website, which had publically published the decision, had been hacked. The SC tweeted that it had not been hacked and the ruling was valid. He refused to comply. The attorney general announced that the SC decision was part of a “bid to remove” Yameen from office in a type of legal coup, refusing to acknowledge it as an exercise in the balance of branches in government.
Yameen wields immense power over information access while he presides over the state-owned TV station. The military took control of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission, the state media regulator, and withdrew protection for the single channel for alternative news in the country, Rajje TV. On March 2, Rajje TV was forced to close due to threats of mob violence. Allowing such threats to the media is part of Yameen’s sustained efforts at curbing of free speech, which he initiated in August 2016 with the introduction of laws criminalizing and raising fines for defamation. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, ranks the Maldivian press as only “partly free .”
Monopolize the use of force to stop dissent:
When the capital of Male erupted into celebration at the SC decision, police, a force divided during the crisis, dispersed crowds using batons and pepper spray. In the three days following, Yameen fired two police chiefs without citing a reason. He implemented a 15-day state of emergency on February 5 that has been condemned domestically and internationally. Yameen dispatched soldiers around key parts of Male, including the parliament building to stop it from opening. Parliamentarians were forcibly removed from government buildings and judges were trapped within the SC by security agents.
Yameen has adeptly used a tactic long beloved by dictators — inciting violence, then using that violence as a justification for suspending the constitution. In announcing the state of emergency, the legal affairs minister cited a “disruption of the functions of the executive power, and the infringement of national security and public interest.” In this case, executive power was indeed disrupted, but with a democratic ruling from the judiciary. The greatest threat to national security is Yameen’s use of the military itself.
Target traitors, reward loyalists:
Also on February 5, Yameen ordered security forces to arrest former President Nasheed — who has been in exile in the UK — two justices, and former President Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother who had switched to supporting the MDP. The following day, the three remaining judges on the SC heeded Yameen by annulling their decision to release and retry the nine political prisoners. They said they had more carefully considered the president’s concerns that their two former colleagues had tried to overthrow his administration.
On February 21, parliament, bereft of its majority opposition party members, approved an extension  of the state of emergency, voting to uphold it for an additional 30 days “due to the present threat to national security and constitutional crisis.” There is debate over whether enough parliamentarians were present for the vote to be valid. Since the military controls parliament, opposition parliamentarian cannot enter the building to vote or initiate impeachment proceedings.
Parliament’s decision must be taken in light of Yameen’s history of clamping down on political challengers. He manipulated election timelines and the registration of opposition party members to ensure his own dominance. He has strategically ensured that opposition figures are charged with or convicted of security-related offenses, including terrorism. When Nasheed established the Maldives United Opposition (MUO) while in exile, Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) promptly declared it illegal and its activities were domestically suppressed, e.g. rallies dispersed by police. Human rights groups have long condemned the imprisonment of dissidents and their mistreatment while incarcerated, a fate that may await more of those who oppose Yameen.
Enjoy the support of a Big Brother who backs your rule:
Yameen has been criticized by the West for nearly his entire tenure in office. As a member of the Commonwealth, the Maldives was subject to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s condemnation of Yameen’s human rights record and pervasive corruption in 2016. The federal government was granted six months to remedy the detention and prosecution of opposition leaders, judicial tampering and the general weakening of democratic institutions. Yameen responded by quitting the Commonwealth altogether. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups continue to release negative reports of the Maldives each year. The current constitutional crisis only serves to further entrench the Maldivian position as a pariah state. India, a long-time former ally, and the U.S. called for an end to the state of emergency. The UN High Commission for Human Rights chief called the state of emergency “an all-out assault on democracy.”
This is all good news for China  though. India, once a hegemonic force for the Maldives, has lamented its waning influence in the Maldives since Nasheed’s ousting in 2012. This change became readily apparent with the cancellation of a $511 million airport renovation contract with an Indian consortium in 2012. Yameen awarded the contract to a Chinese firm during President Xi Jinping’s 2014 visit to Male. (Both leaders are almost simultaneously lengthening their rule, as news emerged last week that Jinping would try to scrap term limits.) The Maldives followed in Pakistan’s footsteps and also approved a free trade agreement with Beijing in December, its first with any country. The Chinese have been granted major bridge and apartment building projects that are key to developing Hulumale, projects that were evident on nearly every corner I passed on the island. It is understood that new land ownership rights for foreigners are really meant for Chinese with at least $1 billion to invest on such reclaimed land. There are rumors that China would like to establish a military base on the Maldivian atolls. Despite a slight dip last year, Chinese make up the majority of tourists each year.
ISIS and Saudi Arabia also come out winners with this shift back to autocracy. With little hope of upward social mobility or employment, as many as 100 Maldivians have left their country to fight in Syria since 2013 and at least five died doing so. These young men often navigate the terrain of radicalized street gangs in Male before being sent abroad as ISIS fighters. Both organizations feed off the high rates of joblessness, inactivity, urban overcrowding and access to fundamentalist websites in the capital. Jihadist literature distributed outside a local mosque argues that, contrary to theological dictates, Muslims do not need the blessings of a sovereign, parents or a cleric to fight the infidels. Hand in hand with this radicalization, Saudi Arabia has invested millions of dollars building up mosques, colleges and the fishing industry. Residents of Fafuu were alarmed at 2017 rumors  that Yameen would sell their entire atoll to the Saudis. The Saudi crown prince has rented out three entire islands to entertain guests from around the world. Just last week, amid the state of emergency, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced $160 million in aid money for “development projects” in the Maldives.
Yameen’s heavy hand can only grow bolder with Chinese, Saudi and fundamentalist support. Their economic and political backing offers him the benefits of European investment but without the human rights accountability. Religious fundamentalism stands to prosper, as the government benefits from radicalism that isolates citizens from moderating influences. This year will host a decisive turn for the country, with Yameen either coming out even stronger or democratic checks prevailing. Of key concern, it will also show how the current political crisis will affect the tourism industry that is so vital to the nation’s well-being. The tourism apartheid system succeeds if it keeps foreign eyes off the unrest in Male, but the system may not be enough to counterbalance news stories and travel advisories. Whatever happens, tourists who decide to visit, who go straight from the airport to private islands selling paradise, probably won’t notice any difference.
>Feature photo: This man-made Hulumale beach was built in response to rising tide waters.