NEW YORK -- An island paradise known foremost for its picturesque beaches and tourism industry captured international headlines last February when the unexpected resignation of its president appeared to show the country's nascent democracy slipping back toward dictatorship.
During a recent visit to New York, former President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives had a warning for other fledgling democracies. "I would like to tell our friends in the Middle East -- okay, you've been able to get rid of the dictatorship, but please be mindful -- they come back with a vengeance," Nasheed told The Huffington Post.
On Feb. 7, 2012, Nasheed offered his resignation as president of the Maldives in a surprise move. Initially denying that his resignation came under duress, Nasheed later said that he was forced to resign at gunpoint, calling the incident a "coup." Nasheed's vice president, Mohamed Waheed, who claims the country's transition was constitutional, was sworn in as the Maldives' interim president.
Mohamed Nasheed traveled to New York to speak about the release of "The Island President," a film by Jon Shenk that documents the former president's path to office and his environmental protection efforts. The Maldives' string of 1,200 islands lies about 5 feet above sea level, and rising sea levels caused by climate change pose a threat to the local population's existence.
Nasheed, a former human rights activist and journalist, came to power in the Maldives' first democratic elections after 30 years of autocratic rule. He hailed the 2008 elections as a precursor to the democratic uprisings sweeping the Arab world. Now, four years later, the events threatening the Muslim country's fragile democracy may foreshadow a rocky road ahead for democracy building in the Middle East, according to Nasheed.
Libya, Egypt and Tunisia overthrew long-standing dictators in 2011. With all eyes on how these largely Muslim countries will emerge from their respective revolutions, the events taking place in the Maldives may provide insight into the process ahead.
"In 2008, we were able to get rid of [former Maldives dictator Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom," Nasheed said. "Now, Gayoom and Hosni Mubarak went to the same university. They were friends, they lived together. When we were able to remove Gayoom through democratic and peaceful means, that gave a lot of hope to the Arabs and to the Middle East. Whatever happens in the Maldives very soon happens elsewhere in the Arab World."
Egyptians overthrew the regime of strongman Hosni Mubarak last year after protesters took to the streets demanding his ouster. However, Nasheed notes that removing a dictator from power is only the first step in a country's transition to democracy.
"Hosni Mubarak may be down now, but I think there must be old remnants of the dictatorship there and we must be able to flush that for democracy to flourish," he said.
Countries like Egypt may not see such a forward-moving trajectory, Nasheed maintains. When asked whether there would be a resurgence of autocratic rule in the Arab world, Nasheed said, "It is very probable that it is going to happen in these countries."
He also expressed surprise at how quickly the U.S. government responded to the situation in the Maldives. The United States recognized new President Mohamed Waheed's government as legitimate on Feb. 9, just days after the power transfer.
Weeks later, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake, Jr. told TV Maldives that the United States welcomes an independent investigation by a Maldivian commission.
In order to safeguard democracy in the Maldives, Nasheed said that the United States must work with democratic forces and come out in favor of early elections.
"I hope that the United States government can realign itself to what is now happening in the Maldives," he said.
Nasheed knows from first-hand experience that the road to democracy requires more than the removal of a single autocrat.
"It's always easy ... to get rid of a dictator. But to flush all of the networks and intricacies of the dictatorship is not all that simple."
Watch clips of Nasheed's conversation with The Huffington Post in the video below. Video by HuffPost's Hunter Stuart.
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