Less than three years later, he was forced to resign by an angry mob of police officers and soldiers, in what he says was a coup engineered by his autocratic predecessor.
“We have to have an election,” he said in an interview while visiting the Indian capital, New Delhi. “In the absence of that, Islamic radicals are gaining strength in the Maldives.”
The chain of 2,000 islands is best known for its plush resorts, its scuba diving and its reputation as an upmarket honeymoon destination. But away from the tourist atolls, adherence to Islam is compulsory, alcohol is banned, and the conservative Saudi Arabian strand of Islam known as Wahhabism has been expanding its reach for decades.
Nevertheless, the main Islamist political party performed poorly in the presidential race and won no seats in subsequent parliamentary elections. “But after the coup, they have three portfolios in the cabinet, they are calling the shots in the military, and they are consolidating their position,” Nasheed said.
Nasheed said he was arrested 27 times under the rule of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was tortured twice, missed the births of both his daughters and spent 18 months at a stretch in solitary confinement. In the process, he earned the nickname “the Mandela of the Maldives.”
While he was in power, he says, he changed the school curriculum to make it “more balanced and not so Islamic” and proposed a new penal code less dependent on Islamic sharia law.
He noted that he also restored diplomatic relations with Israel that had been suspended for three decades under Gayoom, advocated closer ties with the United States and Maldives’s giant neighbor India, introduced benefits for single mothers and tried to protect women forced by Islamic radicals to wear burqas and veils.
But when he announced his resignation in a nationally televised statement Feb. 7 — after police and soldiers had, he said, basically taken him hostage — both the United States and India moved swiftly to recognize his successor, former vice president Mohammed Waheed Hassan, without taking the trouble to find out what had really happened, he says.
“We did so much to make the Maldives more liberal,” he said. “To suddenly see the United States, so quickly — they could have held onto their horses for a few minutes and just asked me — so quickly to have recognized the status quo, that was very sad and shocking.”
Shashank Joshi, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, attributed the State Department’s response to its focus on other priorities, such as China, North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan.