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Lessons In Dictatorship
President Gayoom spent most of the 1950’s and 60’s in the Middle East honing a reputation as an ’Islamic scholar’. But, amidst the tumult of Muslim Brotherhood activism, anti-British unrest and the Free Officers Movement of Gamal Abdel Nasser, it also provided the scene for his formative political experiences. Thirty years on, as he watches his Egyptian counterpart
Monday, July 24,2006 00:00
by Staff Writer, MinivanNews

President Gayoom spent most of the 1950’s and 60’s in the Middle East honing a reputation as an ’Islamic scholar’. But, amidst the tumult of Muslim Brotherhood activism, anti-British unrest and the Free Officers Movement of Gamal Abdel Nasser, it also provided the scene for his formative political experiences.

Thirty years on, as he watches his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, continue his decades-long stranglehold on power, under pressure to reform both at home and abroad, the Middle East continues to teach Gayoom much more about the techniques of secular political control than it ever did about Islamic theology.

Though it is true that Gayoom has attempted to co-opt Islam, while for Mubarak politicised religion constitutes the greatest threat to his rule, they nevertheless have more in common than divides them. Both are nationalist, secular dictators – and when he looks to Egypt, Gayoom can see examples and warnings for his own regime.

This is partly because the importance of Islam to Gayoom’s rule, past and present, has been overstated. It was a crucial part of his emerging identity and propaganda, but the foundation of his political philosophy has always been secular, nationalist and materialist.

Gayoom’s biography portrays a man deeply immersed in radical Islamic politics. Royston Ellis writes that ’’Maumoon regarded it as a privilege to be able to hear Sayyed Qutb’’, an influential Eqyptian critic of western imperialism and the threat of modernist influences to Islamic values. (Qutb’s uncompromising stance later became a rallying call for jihadists splintering from the Brotherhood in the 1980’s, including Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden.)

When the secular nationalist Nasser seized power in the summer of 1952, Gayoom was holidaying at a Muslim Brotherhood camp.

But rather than ushering in a career of Islamist rejectionism, Gayoom seems to have realised early on the efficacy of utilising both religious and secular tools of social control. Or rather, adopting the latter and using the former as a moral sheen.

When his own opportunity for power came in 1978, any thoughts of imposing a direct form of Islamic rule were forestalled by the Maldives’ particular historical, social and cultural conditions.

Nevertheless, Gayoom has attempted to use Islam as a moral buttress for what is, in essence, a decidedly secular dictatorship grounded in clear economic and familial interests.

His early critiques of President Ibrahim Nasir stressed the spiritual corruption of the old order. Indeed, the broad acceptance of Gayoom’s rule at the start stemmed from a mistaken impression amongst Maldivians that he was a ’’harmless’’ Islamic intellectual who, at the very least, would provide stability and probity.

But the use of Islam has never been the most important weapon in the regime’s armoury. The basis for control was, and continues to be, coercion, patronage and periodic repression.

Under Article 38 of the constitution, Gayoom may be the’’supreme authority to propagate the tenets of Islam in the Maldives’’, but despite his best attempts, he has utterly failed over the years to build a charismatic ’’cult of personality’’ that can withstand popular criticism. His tirades against Christians, communists and foreign threats to Islam are now dismissed with incredulous laughter.

Thirty years on, what lessons is Gayoom taking on board from the present Egyptian experience? Of course, the role of Islam is markedly different. If for Gayoom it has served as a public relations convenience, for Hosni Mubarak it is a direct threat to his authority.

Mubarak has always been armed with the justification that since the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the entire country remains in a ’’state of emergency’’. Islam is the biggest danger to the regime, both in the form of the peaceful Muslim Brotherhood and militant Islamists who have repeatedly targetted tourist resorts. Moreover, Islam has provided an independent moral framework within which to challenge the regime’s more egregious abuses. Liberal opposition remains weak and marginalized, though increasingly mainstream.

Of course, it suits Mubarak to have a moderately healthy Islamist opposition. The West might claim to want democracy in Egypt but not if the likely winners are the Brotherhood. As ever, the United States is sticking with the President - the better the devil it knows. It remains a supreme annoyance to Gayoom that the MDP presents such a liberal, democratic and reasonable face to outside observers.

So what is Gayoom learning from the current Egyptian experience? The Maldivian President is almost certainly watching how a nationalist ’’republican’’ constitution can best be hollowed out and manipulated to serve a dictator’s ends. He’s already learnt the lesson that Islam should be coopted and used rather than kept at arm’s length. He’s seeing Mubarak’s adept use of the international community – sending signals of ‘reform’ at crucial moments before lasping into former habits. He’s mimicked the employment of Hill and Knowlton, an international public relations company.

But he’s also realizing that, whatever controls are put in place now, a far greater problem remains: who, or what, comes next?

Since holding deeply flawed parliamentary and presidential elections last year, Egypt’s government has backtracked fast. It has cancelled municipal polls, imprisoned the runner-up to Mubarak in last year’s vote, arrested 600 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, sent police and hired thugs to violently disrupt opposition demonstrations , passed laws enshrining executive authority over the judiciary and banned two Washington-based institutes that were promoting democracy in the country.

As in the Maldives, Mubarak has sought to present ’’reformist’’ legislation which, in actual fact, further entrenches autocratic practices. International criticism has been muted – but most recently (and Gayoom be warned), new sources and coalitions of opposition have been emerging to challenge the regime.

On May 25th, 300 Egyptian judges joined a protest against government interference in the judiciary. Earlier in the month, two Egyptian judges were prosecuted after they accused pro-government colleagues of manipulating election results in 2005. The move sparked huge protests in Cairo and a brutal police response.

The judges’ case has become a rallying-point for those seeking democratic reform in Egypt.

"It’s like Egypt has been reborn," said Bissam Kassab, an anti-government journalist and activist.

"Why are so many journalists arrested in Egypt? Because the state interferes with judges. Freedom is in judges’ hands and I’m protecting my freedom by supporting them," she said in quotes carried by Reuters news agency.

This realization of the necessity of genuine judicial reform as a precursor to democratic change has not been as fully recognized in the Maldives. But pressure on judges is growing and there have been unprecedented displays of protest against decisions within courtrooms.

It remains to be seen whether or when the Maldives will witness its judges marching with the opposition. They are less well-educated, more dependent on the government and much more tightly bound by age and patronage to Gayoom. But the Egyptian example has shown how crucial a responsibility those administering the justice system have. If they stand up to the government, then all that will remain to Gayoom is brute force. The veneer of legality will have been removed.

It has always been contradictory that Egyptians have been trapped under a dictator but have also had access to what appears to be one of the most vibrant presses in the Middle East. Indeed, it has offered encouragement to Gayoom: a government can tolerate the criticism of a largely free media as long as it cracks down at crucial junctures and maintains a sufficiently robust security apparatus.

But it is important to note that while media criticism of the government is commonplace, press laws which allow prison sentences for libel and "insults" and an ongoing state of emergency have encouraged self-censorship on sensitive issues.

In the same way, the Maldives’ new press and libel laws have been designed to place unacceptable restrictions on journalists.

Under Egypt’s new publishing law, journalists can still be sent to jail for writings that are deemed to insult the president or state institutions such as the cabinet. And they still face stiff fines for making defamatory corruption allegations against officials.

"This new law basically tells Egyptian journalists that they risk jail if they are serious about covering foreign affairs or their own leaders," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division.

New opposition there may be, and Mubarak was forced to concede last-minute changes to the publishing bill last month, but the Egyptian regime, bolstered by US support, does not appear in mortal danger.

The likelihood of a reasonably smooth handover of power to Gamal Mubarak, the President’s western educated son, remains high. Yet nobody is sure quite where loyalties will lie and what major players will do once Hosni has passed on. Last year’s election opened the door to genuine presidential contests. As in the Maldives, promises for reform are unleashing greater demands for democratic change and accountability. Dictators can begin top-down reform programmes. But if they don’t end them, they are usually ended by them.

It’s clear that Gayoom is in a marginally tougher position than his Egyptian counterpart. While Mubarak remains a charismatic figure in Egyptian politics and a capable charmer on the international stage, Gayoom’s personal credibility is in free-fall.

When Gayoom stands in front of the mirror, he may still see the ‘father of the nation’ charged with the moral responsibility to lead and protect, but fewer and fewer Maldivians are contemplating the same image. The diminution of respect for Gayoom has been rapid and incalculably damaging to him. The insulting moniker ’’Golhaabo’’ is a visceral (and comical) rejection of Gayoom’s own self-perception – it provides a language and a context in which ordinary Maldivians can reduce him to size.

The absence of religious controls, and his inability to exert his personality on even the ruling DRP, means that Gayoom is forced to use a range of much cruder, and more obviously coercive, tools with which to hang on to power.

Whatever the relative strength of their current positions, both presidents face the inescapable challenge of managing what comes next. They have withstood every opposition protest for over two decades, but the march of time won’t be halted by riot police, repressive legislation and false promises. Après les dictateurs, la démocratie?

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