Maldives democracy must not go backwards

The British tourists who come to the Maldives' beaches are unlikely to know about the Foreign Office's warning this week to steer clear of large political gatherings. But the country's two-year-old government is in crisis. The resignation en masse of President Mohamed Nasheed's cabinet at the end of June created a constitutional crisis, leaving the Maldives without a government for two weeks. The president then unconstitutionally reappointed his cabinet without reference to parliament. Opposition MPs were arrested and only released after a prolonged appeal to the supreme court – after which the governing party called for demonstrations in an effort to make the judges change their mind.

Many Maldivians rejoiced in 2008 when the country held its first fully democratic presidential election following 30 years of suppression, torture and censorship under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Nasheed came to power carrying the hopes of the nation with him that it could achieve full democracy. This was followed a year ago by the first democratic elections to the parliament. I was a candidate in the first round of the presidential election, and the votes of my supporters decisively contributed to Nasheed's majority in the second round.

In the same way that a democratic South Africa sent a signal to the world that Africa was changing, the Maldives sent a signal that the Muslim world was changing. Despite the difficulties democracy faces in places like Afghanistan, the Maldives were a powerful demonstration that such transition could be achieved peacefully. Most crucially this was delivered by Maldivians for Maldivians and not at the behest of American foreign policy. That, too, sent an important message to many other Muslim countries debating their futures that peaceful campaigns to achieve democracy and human rights could work.

However, the Maldives is now again facing a serious challenge to our hard-won democracy less than two years after Nasheed came to power, because he did not win a parliamentary majority. The Maldives constitution establishes a clear separation of powers between president and parliament, but now Nasheed is attacking the right of parliament to effectively scrutinise the executive in a way that he would no doubt have similarly criticised his predecessor for.

The Maldives parliament should be allowed to do its job. It is debating important issues such as the foreign ownership of our international airport and seeking accountability from members of the president's cabinet. However, we now see opposition MPs being arrested illegally, the army being deployed on the streets and unrest in the capital, Male. Nasheed is a former Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience" – yet he has threatened his own parliament and arrested MPs under laws that he himself opposed when he went through his own struggle.

The international community must now play a key role in supporting the right of the Maldives parliament to hold the executive to account. The European parliament has expressed concern about the situation and it has required the intervention of the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to bring the two sides together. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, should intervene: the Maldives are a former British protectorate and last year over 100,000 Britons visited the islands, making Britain the country's largest tourist market. Nasheed is very close to the Conservative party and was the international guest speaker at their conference last year. The Conservatives have provided him with support in the past, including training activists from his party.

In order to secure continued respect for the president's role, Nasheed needs to demonstrate full respect for the Maldives' other institutions. This is the only way to honour the struggle for democracy to which many believed the president had been totally committed. Two years ago, some in the international community hailed Nasheed as the Mandela of the Maldives because of the way in which he forgave his predecessor, who had tortured and imprisoned him. The tragedy for the Maldives, and for the wider Muslim world, would be for him to take the country backwards to Gayoom's time.

Hassan Saeed, attorney-general of the Maldives from 2003 to 2007.