OVER the last year or so, democratically elected governments have been shaken, and in some instances, toppled by popular street movements. The international reactions to these events have been revealing and instructive.
Take last year’s army coup against President Morsi as an example. Here was an elected leader, who, despite his many mistakes, still commanded a significant mandate.
Yet when the army removed Morsi in the wake of street protests, the American government studiously refused to call the military takeover what it was: a coup d’etat.
The reason lies in US legislation that was designed to trigger an immediate aid cut-off in the event of military intervention against a legitimate civilian government.
In Thailand, the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been rocked by crowds who took to the streets of Bangkok in a well-organised bid to place a “people’s council” in power.
The trigger for these demonstrations was provided by an ill-judged amnesty that would have brought the prime minister’s brother, Thaksin, back to Thailand. Ousted in an army coup over corruption charges, he has languished in exile, mostly in Dubai.
Few Western voices were raised to condemn this attempt to topple an elected government. And when Ms Shinawatra called a snap election to prove she still had a popular mandate, the opposition blocked polling in several areas, thus rendering the polls invalid, at least for the time being.
In Venezuela, too, crowds have been agitating for weeks against the government of Nicholas Maduro because of rising prices and unemployment.
But the president says he will not budge from the late Hugo Chavez’s policies that have slashed poverty from 35 per cent in the 1990s to six per cent now. Maduro also claims to have reduced unemployment and inflation.
The one common factor in all three countries is that the protesters have been from the middle class, urban, educated elites.
In Thailand, there is a sharp divide between farming communities in the north who have benefited from Thaksin’s reforms, and the industrial and professional workers of Bangkok and the south.
The latter views the ex-prime minister and his sister as populists who cannot be removed by democratic means because of their popularity, and seek a military-backed government.
But the PM has foiled this move by refusing to crack down on the protesters, thus avoiding giving the army a pretext to move in.
In Egypt, the liberal, westernised civil society of Cairo and the bigger cities have been pitted against the largely working class supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although both groups cooperated to bring Hosni Mubarak down, Morsi was unable to build a consensus, or be a president of all Egyptians, clinging instead to his narrow conservative base. Now, General Sisi has given himself more powers than Mubarak enjoyed.
The second country that has seen an elected president ousted through a popular movement is Ukraine. After months of demonstrations in Kiev, President Yanukovich was forced to flee to Russia.
Following his replacement by an acting president, Putin has virtually annexed Crimea, precipitating a major crisis.
The Russian strongman’s aggressive action has provoked much hypocritical shock and horror in western capitals and media. Leaders have described it as a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty as well as of international law.
But most of these pious voices were silent when the US-led coalition bombed and invaded Iraq on the pretext of WMDs in 2003, ignoring international law.
So clearly, international law and sovereignty are concepts that are invoked when it suits governments.
What people forget is that Crimea was historically part of the Russian Empire, and it was not until the Soviet Union broke up in 1992 that it was bundled up with Ukraine to form an independent state.
The people of Crimea were never consulted when this decision was taken, despite the fact that ethnic Russians constitute 60 per cent of the region’s population.
Now, although a referendum has been called to ascertain the will of the Crimean people, western leaders have slapped sanctions on Russia. While I hold no brief for Putin, the fact is that Russia has far more interests to protect in Crimea than the US had in Iraq.
Apart from the large Russian majority there, the Russian navy has a major base in Sevastopol.
It is clear that the West has few options to resolve this crisis: there is clearly — and fortunately — no stomach for any military action. The European Union is too dependent on Russian natural gas to go very far in supporting American action.
What nobody in western governments or the media is saying is that the removal of an elected government by street demonstrations makes a mockery of democracy.
Even if many Ukranians disagreed with President Yanukovich’s decision to turn to Russia, and reject the EU’s offer for entry into the club, they had democratic means to challenge their president.
And the manner in which thousands of opponents, many of them armed hard-right thugs, were on the streets for months raises questions about organisation and money.
While I am no conspiracy theorist, I find it hard to believe that such a movement could be sustained for so long without help.