Friday, February 18, 2011

This Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

The shockwaves continue to reverberate through world politics after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. I'm spending much of my time reading about the Middle East, news, blogs and live feeds - al Jazeera, The Arabist, the Guardian's live feed, Nicholas Kristof in Bahrain, and of course the young Netizens of the Middle East have all done great reporting, and I've found plenty of good commentary too.

There are far more brutal and evil men holding on to office in Iran and Libya - and surprisingly Bahrain - but one of the recently shaken leaders I'm most hoping to see thrown into the dustbin of history is unconnected to the uprisings and the Middle East for that matter, except that he claims he thought that 17-year-old Karima el-Mahroug aka "Ruby Heartstealer" was the granddaughter of his friend Mubarak.

Silvio Berlusconi has always been bad news for Italy, unfit to lead because of retention of his media holdings, more concerned about protecting himself from prosecution than leading Europe's fourth greatest power (sic). But it has never been quite as blatantly, shamelessly obvious to the entire world that this emperor has no clothes as in recent months. Tried by a jury of three women, representing the half of humanity which he has consistently debased as well as the spirit and letter of the law, I hope he is convicted and gets what he deserves.

In fact, I'm not sure Berlusconi hasn't damaged his country more than Mubarak or Ben Ali his. They were garden-variety secular dictators running repressive authoritarian systems in a part of the world that has seen little else in the past half-century. If they had never been born, similar men would most likely have played a similar role, taking off the uniform, never relinquishing power, letting their countries stagnate as the modern world passes them by. Globalization and a youth bulge have helped bring the Middle East to where it is now, awakening from false stability to a time of turbulence driven by the demands of a frustrated and young population.

Italy has the opposite of a youth bulge, it is one of the world's oldest countries per capita because contraception caught on a few decades ago. And its politicians have rarely been particularly virtuous - Bettino Craxi fled to Tunisia to avoid being jailed for corruption. But two decades ago, its political system was turned upside down by that wide ranging corruption scandal, Tangentopoli. The dominant party for 40 years vanished. There was an opportunity for Italy to move forward. And since Berlusconi lasted less than a year in his first term as prime minister in 1994, Italy did move forward, improving public finances, meeting the requirements for entry into the EU's new common currency through hard work.

But then Berlusconi was elected again. He is a unique political figure with really no discernable virtues, unless you define him negatively - if you disagree with the Italian left, Berlusconi keeps them out of power. The man certainly does not lead. He clowns, and he protects himself from prosecution for his crimes. There are able figures in the Italian government, and the country has not fallen apart, it has performed surprisingly well in the economic crisis over the past three years, while sovereign debt crises have smote Greece and threatened Portugal and Spain. But the fish rots from the head, and the head is rotting.

There is a saying that people get the government they deserve. And Berlusconi does retain popular legitimacy. But his actions and his character outweigh his popular support. Italy is a beautiful country with many wonderful people. And they deserve far better than Berlusconi for their prime minister.

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