MALE (Reuters) - It was an ordinary blue felt pen, and not a bullet, that killed Mohamed Nasheed’s term as the first democratically elected president of the Maldives.
After rising to acclaim as a champion of democracy and action against climate change, Nasheed is now back on the streets where he led a nearly two-decade campaign to bring full democracy to an archipelago ruled more like a sultanate.
His country, best-known as the Indian Ocean’s top five-star beach destination, is now on a political knife edge amid fears his mass protests, so far peaceful, could spark a crackdown and take the Maldives back to its authoritarian past.
The circumstances around his exit three years after a historic 2008 election victory over President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, which at once removed Asia’s longest-serving ruler and ushered in its newest democracy, remain hotly contested.
A Reuters investigation, drawing on more than a dozen interviews including with witnesses who have not spoken out before, reveals a coup of opportunity that capitalized on opposition discontent, political missteps and police and troops loyal to the old order.
Nasheed says a cabal of former regime strongmen conspired with opposition leaders to force him to make a choice: resign in two hours, or face the introduction of live ammunition into a duel between loyal and rebelling security forces, then only being fought with batons and rubber bullets.
“The generals were in league with the mutinous police,” Nasheed said at a recent news conference, acknowledging that he had erred in not clearing out officers loyal to Gayoom.
“We never did a purge of the military. We have a history of murdering our former leaders and I wanted to change that.”
His erstwhile vice president, now President Mohamed Waheed Hussain Manik, says Nasheed stepped down voluntarily after defying the democratic institutions he helped bring to life.
Waheed maintains his ascendancy was constitutional.
A Commonwealth team of ministers on Wednesday suspended the Maldives from its democracy watchdog group and urged new elections this year to end any questions over whether the transfer of power was lawful.
Nasheed’s swift exit began with a January 16 order to the military to arrest the top criminal court judge, whom he accused of blocking multi-million-dollar graft cases against allies of Gayoom.
Three weeks of nightly protests by a few hundred opposition demonstrators, orchestrated by Gayoom’s new Progressive Party of the Maldives and its allies, ensued and climaxed on February 7.
Already, Nasheed’s liberal Islamic policies and overtures to Israel had given opponents a hammer to bash him with vitriolic Islamist rhetoric, which increasingly has an ear among some of the Maldives’ Sunni Muslim population of 330,000.
Nasheed later defied a Supreme Court order to free the judge and defended his action as essential to breaking Gayoom’s stranglehold on the judiciary. That fuelled the opposition protests and sparked rebukes from friendly nations, and even from inside his Maldivian Democratic Party.
“Arresting the judge was unconstitutional. Our president is very activist-minded. He tries to solve everything on the street,” a senior politician close to Nasheed told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “This became a problem for institutions - the police, the military, the opposition.”
On the very square in Male where Nasheed won his fight for democracy, next to the crystal aquamarine waters that draw nearly a million tourists a year to the Maldives, those institutions would help take the presidency away from him.
By dawn on February 7, it was clear that Mohamed Nasheed was no longer commander-in-chief.
Visibly frustrated, he entered Republic Square from the adjacent Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF) headquarters and pleaded with mutinying police and troops to stand down.
They refused, and things fell apart.
Loyal troops launched teargas rounds and began clashing with the mutineers who had joined the nightly protest, mostly police but also some soldiers.
At 9:30 a.m., two men of command rank from the Gayoom era arrived at the MNDF headquarters: retired Colonel Mohamed Nazim and former assistant police commissioner Abdullah Riyaz.
“When Nazim was carried in by the lower ranks and some officers, it was as if he had won a soccer match,” a sergeant in the MNDF who has served for 18 years told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “That’s when I knew it was all pre-planned.”
Neither Nazim nor Riyaz had a role in government but they would be back in command the next day - Nazim as defence minister and Riyaz as police commissioner - after shepherding a sitting president out of office.
Nazim and Riyaz said in a statement they were asked by the former defence minister to help mediate the standoff. Nasheed denies that and says the men came with an ultimatum: resign by 1:30 p.m. or face a bloodbath on the streets.
He took the first choice.
Nasheed, famed for walking most places around the 2-km square island capital, took a rare and final ride in his presidential Mercedes the 200 meters to his office. At least 50 soldiers, as well as Riyaz and Nazim, swarmed the crawling car.
The pair strode with Nasheed into the president’s elevator and swooped upstairs. Nasheed held his last cabinet meeting.
“A minister asked the president if this was a coup. He said ‘This cannot be termed as anything but a coup’,” former Cabinet Secretary Hisaan Hussein told Reuters.
As soon as it adjourned, Nasheed went to get ready to address the nation on television. One thing had yet to be done.
“What happened next is he wrote a letter by hand, standing in the corner. I gave him the pen that was in my hand,” Hussain said. Nasheed returned the pen and the resignation letter, written in blue.
Nasheed then resigned on television, and a horde of demonstrators and mutineers celebrated in the square in what they would later term the Maldives’ version of an “Arab Spring.” The twist: Nasheed was democratically elected, not a long-ruling autocrat.
Within hours, Vice President Waheed was president and Nasheed was under military guard.
“This was not a coup. Yes, I was there, but so was every other Maldivian. It is a joke what (Nasheed) is saying,” opposition politician and longtime Gayoom protege Qasim Ibrahim told Reuters. He is one of the Maldives’ wealthiest businessmen.
His television station, VTV, provided the feed that aired immediately after mutineers seized the state-run MNBC.
“It looks like a coup and smells like a coup, but it’s a big leap from being forced to resign at gunpoint to a metaphorical gunpoint,” a Western ambassador told Reuters, referring to Nasheed’s initial claim that guns were pointed at him.
Nasheed’s party alleges that the police and soldiers involved were paid off by businessmen allied with the opposition. Four diplomats Reuters spoke to said there was likely a degree of truth, but no proof of it had emerged.
“I don’t think it was so well-planned,” the ambassador said.
Even as the Commonwealth urges an investigation and new President Waheed has proposed a presidential commission to investigate his own ascendancy, military leaders have taken no chances.
They have emptied the four armories around Male and put the weapons inside the MNDF headquarters after some tense squabbles between factions inside the forces, three sources told Reuters.
This week, the criminal court threw out several graft cases against opposition figures, a sign of the old impunity provided by a pliable and poorly educated judiciary.
Nasheed’s supporters remain on the streets in peaceful protest, demanding an election be held before it is due in October 2013, which the new president has said he will do if the conditions are right.
“I think it is important that democracy be upheld there, and there is concern that the president (Waheed) might find himself heavily influenced by the previous Gayoom regime,” a diplomat from a Commonwealth country told Reuters.
“There must be no return to the pre-2008 days. The importance of the early elections it to ensure there is a clear democratic mandate.”
Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel