About Stephen Zunes
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as advisory committee chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. His most recent book (co-authored with Jacob Mundy) is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010)
Articles by Stephen Zunes
The recent ouster of the corrupt and autocratic president of the Maldive Islands, Mahmoud Gayoom, marks another victory in the global struggle for rights and democracy. Gayoom was defeated in a nationwide election on 28 October after ruling the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago as his personal fiefdom for more than thirty years.
There are several reasons why the Gayoom regime finally permitted free elections and accepted their outcome, which include the efforts of the newly constituted opposition political parties and independent media, as well as pressure from international non-governmental organizations, foreign governments and international financial institutions. Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco.
Perhaps the most significant factor, however, was a campaign of systematic nonviolent resistance by pro-democracy activists which shattered the myth of a national consensus around Gayoom's continued rule, prompted a reduction of foreign support for the regime, empowered opposition parties and political leaders, and divided pro-government elites. As a result, the Maldives can be added to the dozens of countries from the Philippines to Chile to Ukraine whose autocratic governments have been undercut or capsized by people power.
For the first twenty years of Gayoom's regime, opposition political parties were effectively banned and political dissent was quickly suppressed. A little over four years ago, however, the people of Maldives began to openly defy the regime. In what became known as Black Friday, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets of the capital of Male in a peaceful protest in August 2004, only to be attacked by police. More than 200 of the protesters were arrested and Gayoom declared a state of emergency.
Protests gathered force in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami in December 2004, in which poor people fared far worse than the privileged elite. Even strictly nonviolent protests could lead to severe punishment under Gayoom's arbitrary rule. For example, in October 2005, Jennifer Latheef, a 29-year old journalist and graduate of the University of San Francisco, was sentenced to ten years in prison on trumped-up charges of "terrorism," and was adopted by Amnesty International as prisoner of conscience.
Growing dissidence in 2006 and 2007 forced the regime to release Latheef and other political prisoners, allow greater press freedom, and legalise opposition political parties - though many other restrictions on political freedom continued.
Many disproportionately young civic activists, who had learned
about resistance tactics and strategies from international NGOs, then
ratcheted up the pressure, employing creative means of building their
movement, such as using blogs and text messaging to bypass government
restrictions on public gatherings. They created web sites with downloadable flyers ready to print, and organised mobile music shows on sound trucks in which popular local bands performed anti-Gayoom
Nonviolent protests and government repression was not restricted to
the capital. In January 2006, for example, police stormed the remote
island of Fares-Maathodaa, brutally beating scores of peaceful
Seen as an ally in the "war on terrorism", the United States and other Western governments had been largely supportive of the Gayoom government in both practical ways, such as training military personnel and security assistance, as well as through symbolic gestures, such as visits by U.S. Navy ships. Indeed, little support for the pro-democracy movement came from foreign governments, with only human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch bringing attention to the plight of political prisoners and the lack of political freedom in the Maldives.
Eventually, however, the Gayoom regime eventually began to lose sympathy from abroad, as the protests helped stoke international pressure to allow for free and fair elections. After Asia's longest-serving ruler acquiesced, the World Bank helped him keep his word, by threatening to tighten their loan policies towards his government while making funds available for the election itself.
Starting in August 2007 and throughout this year, a series of
government ministers turned in their resignations, indicating a serious
split within the government and weakening the power base of
Gayoom, who had counted on the loyalty of his pampered top officials.
When the elections finally took place, foreign diplomatic missions
and observers from the United Nations ensured international monitoring.
In addition, the Maldivian branch of Transparency
International trained local observers to monitor polling stations across the country.
In the run-up to the election, there were still serious doubts
about whether Gayoom would yield power if he lost - since repressive
acts against his opponents continued and efforts were made to
disenfranchise civil servants and others who might vote against him. Yet for every attempted obstacle set up by the government, pro-democracy activists and local NGOs - teachers, students, lawyers,
journalists and others - exposed the ruler's increasingly desperate efforts and pressured the regime to make the election free and fair.
Public demonstrations grew larger and more dramatic; in one,
protesters paraded through the streets with coffins to dramatise what
the incumbent ruler had brought his people. Posters sprouted across
the islands with a picture of Gayoom's head with the universal "no" sign of a red circle with diagonal bar across it with the slogan "Expires 28.10.2008," the date of the election.
Emboldened by this popular outpouring, the once fractious opposition united behind Mohamed Nasheed - better known as "Anni" - a 41-year old former parliamentarian and political prisoner who had founded the Maldives Democratic Party in exile. Despite Gayoom's enormous advantages in resources at his disposal, when the election took place on 28 October, Anni won 54 percent of the vote.
It is likely that Gayoom's decision to accept the results of the election was based in part on awareness of contingency plans by the opposition to engage in massive strikes and other forms of large-scale civil resistance if he tried to steal it. Such fraudulent efforts by the rulers of Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine earlier this decade had resulted in the massive popular outpourings that brought an ignominious end to these corrupt and semi-autocratic regimes.
As a result, though this dictatorship's final demise was not as spectacular as the recent democratic transitions in and around Europe, the triumph of democracy in the Maldives should be counted as yet another example of the power of civil resistance to create a government by the people, for the people.
There is a quiet revolution going on in the international struggle against corruption and for greater transparency in government.
Two years ago, I attended my first International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC), sponsored Transparency International and other groups, which takes place every other year. The location was Guatemala City, a country where the per capita annual income is only slightly more than the registration, hotel and air fare of most participants. Sponsors included Rio Tinto, Royal Dutch/Shell and other corporations whose own record of upholding legal and ethical standards is far from pristine.
There were a number of sparsely-attended workshops during the four-day conference featuring participants who emphasized the importance of grass roots struggles to fight corruption: Walden Bello, Alejandro Bedana, Shaazka Beyerle, Giorgi Meladze and a handful of others spoke about the successes of grassroots movements in such countries as the Philippines, Nicaragua, Turkey, and Georgia struggling against official corruption. However, the overall emphasis at the conference was on strengthening laws, better oversight by international organizations, stricter sanctions by foreign governments and corporations against corrupt local officials, and other top-down solutions.
What a difference two years can make.
This year's IACC, which just concluded in Athens, took on a very different tone. Though the corporate sponsorship and high visibility of current and former government officials was still enough to give one pause, there were an unprecedented number of participants from civil society: human rights activists, feminists, veterans of nonviolent action campaigns, journalists from alternative media, environmental campaigners, advocates of debt relief, and - despite the European location - and unprecedented number of participants from the global south.
The failure of the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front to agree on the modalities of the long-planned United Nations-sponsored referendum on the fate of Western Sahara, combined with a growing nonviolent resistance campaign in the occupied territory against Morocco's 31-year occupation, has led Morocco to propose granting the former Spanish colony special autonomous status within the kingdom.Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the Middle East / North Africa editor for Foreign Policy in Focus.
He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Zed Press, 2003) and the forthcoming book, co-authored by Jacob Mundy Western Sahara: Nationalist and Conflict Irresolution in Northwest Africa (Syracuse University Press).
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Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50