FIRST soldiers and police surrounded the Supreme Court in Malé, the claustrophobic, sea-girt capital of the Maldives. Then, earlier this week, they hauled off the chief justice and two associates in the dead of night. Abdulla Yameen has racked up many accomplishments since becoming president of the strategic archipelago in 2013, from befriending China and Saudi Arabia to hounding both the opposition and leaders of his own coalition, intimidating the remains of a free press and, earlier this month, shutting parliament. Now he has suspended much of the constitution and declared a 15-day state of emergency.
Mr Yameen may have become a full-blown dictator, but he seems to see himself as the victim of a monstrous injustice. The court, he claims, was paving the way for a coup by nefarious forces. How else to explain its actions on February 1st, when it ordered the release of political prisoners and the reinstatement of MPs who had crossed over to the opposition? The chief justice must have been bribed, he says. To make matters worse, two police chiefs had to be fired before a third could be found who would ignore the court’s orders. (He is said to be so unpopular that underlings shout at him in the canteen.)
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Grievance and paranoia come naturally to the president. A former ally, Ahmed Adeeb, is one of those whom the court ordered released. Talk about ingratitude. Mr Yameen gave him his leg-up. He even changed the constitution to give him the vice-presidency, reducing the minimum age to hold the state’s top posts. Mr Adeeb repaid him by getting caught pilfering $79m from the tourism board. He was duly sacked—as a fall guy, the president’s critics say; as a lone bad apple, he insists. It must be galling that few believe Mr Yameen’s claim that an explosion on the presidential speedboat was an assassination attempt by Mr Adeeb.
It is also unfair that Mr Yameen—stiff, macho and prone to referring to himself in the third person—lacks the charisma of the previous dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He ruled for 30 years, during which the Maldives won its image with tourists as a coral-island Eden, but his wiliness failed him when he was ousted in the islands’ first democratic election, in 2008. Later he backed Mr Yameen’s rise to power. He is his half-brother, after all.
In families, however, gratitude can taste like vinegar—especially when the rest of the clan know that your mother first entered the household as a maid. Mr Yameen intended the same constitutional change that elevated Mr Adeeb to bar Mr Gayoom from returning to power, by setting an upper age limit of 65. Yet far from retiring, the octogenarian Mr Gayoom has infuriatingly rebranded himself as a liberal democrat. On the night the court was purged, Mr Gayoom was also arrested and dispatched to the prison island of Dhoonidhoo (even as his son was released). That the police arresting Mr Gayoom saluted him might, to a sensitive president, count as one more grievance.
A population of about 400,000—a third crammed onto Malé’s six square kilometres—makes the Maldives a tiny place, even if its 1,200 islands are spread across a vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. All politics is personal, and odd combinations can form.
Just one example is that one person calling for Mr Gayoom’s release from Dhoonidhoo is his nemesis in 2008, Mohamed Nasheed (whom the former dictator had once had tortured in the very same place). Mr Nasheed’s tumultuous four years in power before a murky coup were, however imperfect, the Maldives’ first attempt at representative government. His conviction on trumped-up charges of terrorism was one of those that the Supreme Court overturned.
From Sri Lanka, Mr Nasheed remains a thorn in Mr Yameen’s side—though hopes a week ago of an early return were dashed with the suspension of constitutional government. Mr Nasheed urges America to sanction Mr Yameen’s cronies. He has called upon India, for centuries the regional power, to intervene. So far, both countries have merely deplored developments.
For now Mr Yameen has the advantage. He looks determined to hang on through elections later this year—if he holds them at all. Crucially, he holds the money. As the sun sets over Malé, the 1.5km bridge under construction between the capital and the airport island lights up with clear red lettering: “CHINA MALDIVES EVERLASTING FRIENDSHIP”. It is the biggest of several Chinese projects, backed by Chinese loans, that include a hospital and a big expansion of the airport. There is no public tendering, and no budgets have been published. Diplomats and NGOs suspect costs have been wildly inflated.
Not even the monetary authority has any handle on the debts the Maldives is amassing, but thinks three-fifths are owed to China. Any default, and China can extract concessions, such as a base on the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, everyone assumes Chinese cash is lining politicians’ pockets and paying for political largesse.
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A tiny part of that largesse was going this week to young gang members being flown to Malé from distant atolls to add to the numbers showing support for Mr Yameen, even as he breaks up opposition rallies. The gangs embody a strange confluence of street politics, criminality and Islamist fervour, the latter introduced by Saudi Arabian charities in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. They have brought dramatic change to islands that have traditionally nurtured a very tolerant form of Islam.
Mr Yameen is happy to identify with this new form, painting his critics at home and abroad as enemies of Islam. He is thought to be mulling “In the name of God” as a campaign slogan. But Mr Yameen knows he cannot rely on God alone. “Maldivian Idol”, a hugely popular televised singing competition, was abruptly put on hold during last week’s political tensions. The rumour is that it will soon be back on again—proof of normality amid the swirling political currents of this most peculiar of island republics.