The Changing Face of Tyranny

Since over 2,532 years ago when Cleisthenes of Athens reformed the Athenian constitution granting the right to self-determination and power to its people, introducing what would become known as democracy, the world has been shaped and reshaped by democracy and tyranny. While discourse on democracy is now considered a vital element in raising public awareness on upholding a nation’s democratic system, it is equally essential to analyze its antithesis; tyranny to ideate on where we stand, whether we are headed towards democratic backsliding or whether in fact, we are already under tyranny.
The modern world with its globalization and international organizations promoting peace, democracy and human rights has allowed for an unprecedented wave of adoption of democracy in the later part of the 20th century. When the United Nations was formed in 1945, only 8.11% of the nations of the world was deemed as democracies. But even then, with the exception of the few liberal democracies, most democratic nations disenfranchised female voters or some ethnic minorities while closed autocracies and electoral autocracies accounted for 78.38% and 13.51% respectively. This has shifted towards progressive reform worldwide where autocracies now account for less than 13% of the nations.
This sets up a clear datum that it is now more difficult than ever for autocrats or tyrants to oppress the people and suppress their rights. The fear of armed foreign intervention and domestic revolutionaries has forced tyrants and dictators across the globe to reconsider and redesign their tactics.
In the Maldives, the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is a textbook definition of an elected autocrat or a tyrant who has managed to dupe the system into suppressing the fundamental rights of his people while portraying himself as a silent and benevolent leader who is constantly saving the public from an unseen and forever evolving danger.
The story of President Ibrahim taking the executive office is all too similar to Peru’s dictator Alberto Fujimori’s story. Both were relatively unknown prior to their elections and were accidentally thrust into the presidential race after all remaining parties worked against then ruling party to topple the government. And once taken office, dismantled the very establishments that brought them into power and engaged in corruption, nepotism and human rights violations.
Under this new breed of 21st century tyrants, from a cursory view, the independent institutions will continue to file cases and function, the courts will continue to hold trials and pass judgment on the many cases lodged by the ordinary and the media will continue to report on both domestic and international developments. But it is here where the need to truly analyze autocrats like President Ibrahim comes.
Unlike the autocrats and fascists of the 20th century, with the few exceptions like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, modern day despots like President Ibrahim cannot afford to openly subject his people to gulags and hold public displays of torture and mass executions, without facing the wrath of the globalized world who no longer tolerate injustice and brutality in any part of the world.
Instead, he is forced to resort to other tactics to portray a veneer of democracy and stability while systematically dismantling the democratic process.
Much like his Peruvian counterpart and dictator Alberto Fujimori or Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, President Ibrahim wasted no time in installing party hacks throughout the entire government, including the independent institutions and packing courts with loyalists. The state media was swiftly handed over to party propagandists while the independent medias were slowly but strategically brought under the control over the state through threats and financial incentives.
For 21st century tyrants and elected autocrats like President Ibrahim, the idea of overturning the existing norms and paradigms overnight like how the Nazi party effectively overtook control over the entire nation following the Reichstag fire is replaced with a more “reformist” approach; where the government slowly restricts certain rights, not all but some to a certain degree and slowly place more and more restrictions while hijacking independent institutions and the judiciary.
The restrictions of rights of the people are placed slow enough and adequately spanned enough that it is imperceptible for the average citizen. This was clearly the case when President Ibrahim effectively suspended the fundamental right to freedom of expression in the country through an executive order placed not to suspend the freedom of expression, but criticism of the Maldives’ foreign policy and its bilateral relations with other countries.
While this is not an outright attack against free speech, it is strategically designed to silence the strongest cause for which many were rallying around the opposition at the time. A seemingly harmless executive order had by all means had shut down the opposition’s largest movement and it’s associated rallies and in the subsequent busts by the police, many homes were raided and civil rights were violated by the police in executing the presidential decree.
For elected autocrats like President Ibrahim, the primary goal is to monopolize the constitutional powers to eliminate any challenges to them. Modern tyrants have seen the consequences of allowing dissent to grow and seek the aid of foreign intervention, so for them consolidating power and ensuring that any and all public and independent institutions through which the voice of dissent may seek aid is ultimately under their control is at the top of their agenda above all else.
Tyranny cannot take place without enablers who are complicit in violating the rights of their fellow people. A common ground for all tyrants is the nepotism and cronyism within their governments, injecting their family and loyalists into government institutions and other organizations are. Since taking office, President Ibrahim has actively enabled and defended nepotism within his administration to an unprecedented level. While the true extent of nepotism and cronyism within his administration is hidden from the public view through legal arguments and outright unlawful blocks against RTIs, a simple glance on to the top executives of this administration is enough to reveal the paranoia and the nature of President Ibrahim’s administration.
  • – Police Chief Mohamed Hameed – President Ibrahim’s Brother-in-Law
  • – Army Chief Ahmed Shamaal – Coalition Partner former President Maumoon’s Nephew
  • – Health Minister Ahmed Naseem – First Lady’s Uncle
  • – President’s Personal Secretary Fathimath Solih – President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s Sister
  • – Foreign Secretary & Special Envoy for Climate Change Sabra Nooradeen – First Lady’s Niece
  • – Elections Commission Member Ahmed Asif – Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid’s Brother-in-Law
Even from a simple glance on to all major government institutions including independent commissions, it is undeniable that the President has installed his close relatives and loyalists to consolidate all the powers of the government on to himself through his family.
However, for a modern tyrant, the act of tyranny itself is cleverly disguised through concentrated PR stunts and control of information from the media. It doesn’t matter if there is no democracy or whether the rights are curtailed, what’s important is that they are restricted slowly while projecting a veneer of democracy to the outside world.
In 1532, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote “A prince need not have the all the [good] qualities, but it is necessary that he appears to have them”. For the tyrants of the 21st century, this advice seems to be their key to usurping control over the state, restrict the people’s rights and maintain their absolute control over the entire state and rig the elections.
For tyrants like Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko or our own Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the projection of the image that they are a benevolent leader out to protect the public from an unseen danger is a priority above all. Spending millions out of state coffers, President Ibrahim has established a veil of censorship and control over the Maldivian media through the state’s sponsorship programs to the local medias.
While the true extent of the censorship enforced over the fourth estate cannot be truly ascertained by international watchdogs, RSF’s press freedom score provides us with an idea of the declining trend in press freedom with the press freedoms score declining from 70.87 in 2021 to 59.55 in 2022.
Regardless of the declining press freedom, civil rights and democracy, the press is still forced to censor the declining democracy and human rights situation in the Maldives. Instead, government sponsored medias exaggerate minor accomplishments and re-run that news while conveniently dropping news on the state’s failed economic policy, rising inflation and the democratic backsliding in the Maldives.
With the perception of a benevolent leader installed through government sponsored and censored media, tyrants like President Ibrahim now need only “fix” the elections.
For modern tyrants, “fixing” the elections is particularly challenging. Global agencies promoting human rights and democracy have created a vast network of watchdogs to ensure democracy and human rights for the entire world. There is no exception from this wave of advocacy promoting democracy as even the most remote corners of the world have been opened up for these advocacy groups.
Unlike their predecessors like Philippines’’ Ferdinand Marcos’ sham elections in 1969, 1981 and 1986 where in 1981 the notorious dictator won with 88.02% of the votes; or our Maldives’ own Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who won with 92.96%, 95.62%, 96.47%, 92.8%, 90.90% and 90.28% in 6 Presidential Elections held between 1978 and 2008, modern dictators are forced to adapt to outmaneuver the international electoral and rights watchdogs.
Instead of forcing the public to cast their ballots in favor of the incumbent tyrant, the public is faced with the dilemma of choosing between the “overwhelming” incumbent regime or an incapacitated and often jailed opposition.
When you have a regime with an inflated public perception, it is deceivingly easy to manipulate the public into creating an image of a strong and undefeatable regime in the minds of a divided public which is bombarded with consistent propaganda from countless state sponsored medias.
For President Ibrahim, this is his de facto method of “containing” the public and ultimately “fix” the elections. By freezing the financial accounts of the opposition or by jailing their leader or Presidential candidate; buying out every mainstream and independent media, bombarding the public with regime propaganda and hijacking the independent institutions, President Ibrahim has in levelled the playing field in his favor all the while holding seemingly democratic elections.
For the 2019 Parliamentary Election, President Ibrahim jailed the opposition leader and froze the accounts of the opposition alliance, causing the later to lose the election and the ruling party to gain an unprecedented supermajority within the parliament. The same tactic was used in time for the Presidential Election 2023 where the opposition’s Presidential candidate was jailed a few months ahead of the election, creating the image of a weak and divided opposition while projecting a strong and unified ruling coalition.
And when all else fails, the armed forces led by the close allies and family members of the tyrant will be kept on a short leash, ready to brutalize the dissent against the regime. The image of President Ibrahim being projected as a silent benevolent protector is quickly discarded when faced with the prospect of a group of people who see beyond the veil of PR stunts and propaganda and willing to make a stand. Instead of the happy-go President Ibrahim, those who oppose the regime are faced with a brutal dictator who is willing to send out his loyalists to harass, attack and bully while using the armed forces to brutally suppress any dissent.
This attack does not stop at just the street-level attacks, the regime targets any sympathizers or any businesses as well, squishing out any form of support for the opposition, truly leveling the playing field in the favor of the tyrant.
By creating a false perception of a strong leadership, hijacking independent medias, monopolizing constitutional powers, jailing the only opposition leader and leveling the playing field ahead of the elections in favor of himself, President Ibrahim has established himself as a textbook dictator and tyrant who like his modern contemporaries are using increasingly deceiving methods to rig elections, unlawfully jail opposition figures, control the media and restrict the civil rights of the people.
Ultimately, regardless of the changing faces of tyranny or their tactics to mask their violations and abuse against the people, the power to disrupt the tyrant’s control over a nation lies solely with its people. As all powers of a democracy comes form and lies with its people, it is the strength of the conviction of every individual to make a stand and change their situation that matters in restoring democracy to any nation.
President Ibrahim qualifies in every aspect of establishing himself as a tyrant, an elected autocrat who has usurped control over the entire state and disabling dissent through restrictions on the people’s fundamental rights. And with the elections rigged in his favor, it is impossible for a small nation like the Maldives to topple the tyranny without the aid of the international community. The question that remains is, will the international community be able to look beyond and see the true changing face of tyranny and act before the young democracy is irreparably damaged.
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