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#Maldives: No Easy Road to Reform - A look at Mohamed Waheed's long journey to the Presidency

Male', Maldives.
On February 7th this year, the reins of the Maldivian Presidency passed to Mohamed Waheed Hassan Maniku, the fifth President of the country. Waheed, then Vice President, ascended to the Presidency when Mohamed Nasheed resigned after weeks of civic protests against him. Some say Waheed was a puppet of the leaders of an alleged coup to topple Nasheed. Nasheed accuses him of leading the alleged coup. Others accuse him being a cowardly man with a history or running away when the going got tough. Very few recall that the country's long road to political reform did indeed begin its modern phase with Mohamed Waheed. Political opponents seek to hide the fact that Dr. Waheed is the man who first introduced a Bill of Rights to the Constitutional Assemply, the first to introduce a Bill on Freedom of Speech to the Majlis.

Nicknamed the Professor by his classmates for his studious nature, Waheed may not have a flamboyant history of a prisoner of conscience. Nor does he have a history of lawlessness and street fighting. However, it cannot be denied that Mohamed Waheed was one man, who had the courage and integrity to stand up for human rights and democracy during the Gayoom regime, long ago while Nasheed was a mere school boy in the UK. Dr. Waheed's Bill of Rights was a landmark bill which sought to guarantee fundamental human rights to Maldivians by entrenching these in the new Constitution of the country. Waheed ran protest campaigns against the unlawful detention of political prisoners, a notable one of which was Nasheed who now smears Dr. Waheed's reputation calling him a traitor to the country.

Although lacking the political hype of Nasheed's camp, Maldivian history of the late 1980s and early 1990s is witness to the key role Dr. Waheed played in bringing in wider democracy to Maldives. In 1978, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, another educated young man, was hailed as a savour who would lead the Maldives into democracy after the strict years of the Nasir era. Gayoom's first years saw not only economic and social progress, but also progress in attaining civic and political liberties. However, by his second term in office, Gayoom lost his aura as his government became bogged down in allegations of corruption and nepotism amidst internal rivalries amongst key henchmen. Disgruntled businessmen such as Ali Abdulla (Alia) and Ali Hussain (Novelty) had begun looking for alternative candidates. Into this picture re-entered Mohamed Waheed, a newly returned graduate of Stanford University, who had been a promising candidate even in the late 1970s.

Waheed comes from an ordinary Male' family which had none of the necessities for social ascendancy at the time, that is, links to nobility or money. However, President Ibrahim Nasir rewarded Handhuvaru Hassan Maniku for his long years of public service by awarding his son Waheed with a scholarship to the University of Beirut. Completing a Bachelor's in English Language and a teaching diploma in war torn Beirut was no easy feat. This exposure to an American liberal education amidst war and strife built up an idealism and activism in Waheed, which he passed on to his students upon his return to the Maldives in late 1970s. The current generation of political leaders from Speaker of Majlis Abdulla Shahid to key political advisors of Nasheed such as Dr. Ahmed Shaheed (ex-Foreign Minister in both the Nasheed and Gayoom governments) were exposed to democratic ideals as Waheed's students at Majeediyya School.

A respected teacher, Waheed's assistance was sought by students and parents alike for all sorts of social issues and concerns, from the quality of education to political issues. His building popularity drew the attention of political leaders who first sought to co-opt Waheed with a glamorous post as the anchor for the new Television Maldives. Close friends and family saw the man as ideal presidential material. It is a mark of Waheed's political astuteness that he did not get ensnared in politicking at the time, and quickly took the opportunity to go for a Masters at Standford in September 1978, the year Gayoom became President.

Waheed worked with the Gayoom government in the early 1980s, leading the development of the education sector under Zahir Hussain, who was later to become a political supporter. Another ally was businessman Mohamed Waheeduddeen, Waheed's current Vice President. Waheeduddeen was the step-brother of Waheed's maternal uncle Abdul Sattar's wife (Fathimath Waheeda). Waheed's maternal family hailed from Haa Dhaalu Kulhudhuffushi, a critical kinship link to the northern political stronghold.

Waheed's next real foray into politics came after he had returned to Maldives a third time (1988), this time after completing a doctorate in international development education at Stanford. As with Nasir, Gayoom too sought to co-opt Dr. Waheed with key posts in his government, including membership in a number of advisory councils. His popularity growing, Dr. Waheed was a focal point for young educated Maldivians disgruntled with the increasing evidence of corruption in the Gayoom government. His family homes became hotbeds of student dissidence. Gayoom used Waheed's political ambition for his own benefit by sending senior politicians to convince Waheed to contest Ilyas Ibrahim for the Male' seat in the general elections. Gayoom built up Waheed to defeat Ilyas, Gayoom's brother-in-law, just as he did Nasheed some years later.

This became Dr. Waheed's formal entry into politics. A popular man amongst the youth already, much to Gayoom's dismay, Waheed became an iconic figure who was fighting against corruption and oppression. His opponent, Ilyas Ibrahim, was a powerful man who headed the military forces and controlled government trading.

The fight between Dr. Waheed and Ilyas was seen by Maldivian youth as one of good versus evil. Thousands flocked to Waheed's banner, sporting a thumbs up sign which became synonymous with rights and democracy. Dr. Waheed ran a disciplined and educated campaign which sought to convince Male' voters to vote for their conscience. Backed by big business such as Ali Abdulla (Nasheed's father in law), Gasim Ibrahim (current leader of Jumhooree Party) and Ali Hussain (Novelty), the campaign flooded Male' with letters and pamphlets explaining Waheed's political philosophy and campaign manifesto. This was the first real political campaign in Maldivian history.

Voters swept Waheed into first position ahead of Ilyas by a significant margin, about 300 votes. However, Waheed and his supporters could not believe that the margin was not larger. They alleged that the ballot had been tampered with by Gayoom's administration, in order not to defeat Ilyas from the second seat. While Dr. Waheed took his seat in Parliament, his disgruntled family and closest supporters ran anti-government campaigns amongst the Male' voters. These build up to forays in bombings, with scenes reminiscent of today's riots led by Nasheed took place.

Dr. Waheed's detractors cannot erase the historical fact that Dr. Waheed was the person who introduced a Bill of Rights to the Constitutional Assembly which was engaged in amending the constitution. Key provisions of these were included in the 1998 Constitution, although the changes were not as wide ranging as the civic and political rights introduced in Dr. Waheed's initial Bill.

Similarly, Dr. Waheed's lone crusade for civic and political rights in the Majlis and in civic society cannot be denied. Dr. Waheed introduced to Majlis a Member's Bill for Freedom of Speech. A core provision of this was the citizen's right to criticize government without fear of reprisal. He followed words with action by working for the release of political detainees, the more famous of whom now is Nasheed. Dr. Waheed's Black Ribbon campaign against political detention by the Government was another milestone in the country's road to democracy.

Political analysts will note that it was Nasheed's attempts to limit freedom of speech by harassing and detaining political opponents who criticized his regime that stirred Dr. Waheed to finally speak out against the Nasheed Government, perhaps a sign of Dr. Waheed remaining true to his fight for democracy.

Political opponents seek to detract from Dr. Waheed's critical contributions to democracy by highlighting his departure from Maldives just two years into his term. Growing popularity within and outside Male' led to increasing government intimidation of himself and family members. This propelled Dr. Waheed to resign as MP and depart from the country in mid 1991 to begin a distinguished career within the United Nations. It is debatable whether Dr. Waheed remaining in Maldives until arrested would have given the country any democratic gains. What is undeniable is that Dr. Waheed's term of service in the UN prepared the man for a greater role in his native country, this time as President. His crucial role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban will no doubt have given him experiences valid for the rebuilding of Maldives after the Nasheed regime.

Dr. Waheed resumed his political career in the Maldives in 2005, spending the crucial years leading up to the 2008 elections in assisting the opposition to prepare to battle incumbent Gayoom. In his absence, the opposition movement that he had begun in the late 1980s had been led by his family and closest allies to back first Ahmed Mujuthaba, then Abdulla Kamaludeen, and finally Mohamed Nasheed.

It is no coincidence that Waheed was to become Nasheed's running mate, given that Nasheed's core strategy team and his business support base were once led by Waheed, some being his own brothers and in-laws. The victory in 2008 was certianly led by the more militant Nasheed, but Dr. Waheed's contribution to the joint ticket was immense. Male' and the educated South came to back Dr. Waheed, who was seen a bringing stability and integrity to the street movement led by Nasheed.

Just two weeks into his Presidency, President Waheed has many nay sayers, not just his predecessor Nasheed and his local and foreign supporters, but also those standing closest to him such as his Advisor Dr. Hassan Saeed. In a video clip leaked late last night, Dr. Saeed is heard telling some supporters that Waheed is the least prepared for this job. That may be Dr. Saeed's opinion, a man whose political ambition outweighs his experience in governance and political exposure, one who has been unable to build a following outside his native atoll.

Dr. Waheed's distinguished contributions to Maldivian democracy in the attaining of civic and political right, and to democracy in Afghanistan and Nepal, is testament to the fact that Dr. Waheed is perhaps the most prepared for the Presidency of the Maldives, from amongst all contenders on the political spectrum today ranging from Gayoom to Nasheed. This preparedness is seen in his slow steady approach to governing the country even in this time of crisis. The National Unity Coalition, or those political partners who, unlike Dr. Saeed, can put national interest before political ambition, would find no better candidate to field for an election, be it early or in 2013 as scheduled.

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