Defiantly delusional

By Christian Nielsen

and have something in common: that keep them desperately holding on to the reins of power.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

History remembers the likes of and Charles de Gaulle somewhat fondly for their jingoistic rhetoric and their, well, dogged outlook in the face of adversity. But the sort of defiance we see from the Muburaks, Mugabes, Gaddafis and, closer to home, Berlusconis and Putins of this world will get less generous treatment in the annals.

But what do these admonished leaders have in common that can be added to the world compendium of bad leaders – a must-read for opposition parties in countries striving for democratic legitimacy? Take 's Silvio Berlusconi and 's Muammar Gaddafi for a telling case of two ageing leaders who do everything and anything to maintain their grip on power.

Indeed, their rise to power tells us as much about the men as their antics to keep it. Today they have the misfortune of sharing more in common than any other two world leaders in the news. And the kinship goes way beyond their defiant stand in the face of popular unrest and the obvious colonial connection between their countries.

Gaddafi and Berlusconi are indubitably the most egocentric, obdurate, corrupt, eccentric, vainglorious and conspicuously rich leaders on the planet. These two are clearly cut from the same shroud – they like to think of themselves as the second coming for their respective peoples.

And so it is today that they now face a common dilemma: meet demands to cede power and face the ramifications (legal or otherwise) of their actions, or go down fighting to the last hair plug.

Let's look more closely at these two characters to understand how their people came to burdened with them.

A military man, the young Gaddafi took control of the country in 1969 following a bloodless coup which sent Libya's monarch packing. After seizing power, he took a populist approach in an attempt to win over Libyan hearts and minds among the many tribal factions. His pan-, anti-imperialist agenda subsumed elements of along with a more Western mercantile mentality – he allowed small-scale entrepreneurship, but kept control of larger, strategically important companies, including oil-related and media businesses.

Among his famed eccentricities, Gaddafi sleeps in a Bedouin tent guarded by female bodyguards on trips abroad. The international journalist John Simpson once implied that the Colonel would pass wind as freely as he would opinions on the ills of Western society.

His record of ruthlessly crushing dissent and repressing civil society was well established long before any of the actions he has been accused of ordering during the February 2011 people's . His attempts to rally Arab states to band together in dealing with regional issues were generally rebuffed, so he turned his attention towards pan-Africanism, later influencing the creation of the African Union.

A reflection of these extreme views can be seen in his now-acknowledged sponsorship of , including his alleged ordering of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Ever the unpredictable, his antics have gained him (un)welcomed media attention during his four-decade rule, including such recent exploits as staging a hero's ‘welcome home' party for Abdel-Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of masterminding the Lockerbie bombing, who was released on ‘medical grounds'; a grand-standing one-hour lecture to the UN on all the ills of the world system; and inviting young Italian women during an official trip to the country to convert to Islam – a gesture he thought would help to cement ties between Tripoli and Rome!

The subject of women leads us neatly on to Silvio Berlusconi, whose now infamous ‘bunga bunga' parties, involving scores of women as captive audience for his crooning and swooning evenings, were reportedly inspired by Gaddafi's penchant for travelling ‘en harem'. Speculation is rife where the term comes from – with no apparent Arabic roots, some suggest it came via an old joke about three Westerners being forced to choose between death and bunga bunga, only to discover if they chose bunga bunga that their fate would be “death by bunga bunga!”

But the latest scandal surrounding the mercurial Berlusconi won't go away so easily. Hundreds of thousands of Italians (spurred on by women's movements) took to the streets earlier this year to protest against their leader's intransigence. Italians, who arguably freely elected the man ( his control of the nation's limited media offering make fair elections unlikely), are finally speaking out, and they are saying “enough is enough”.

And the judiciary might also finally get its chance to catch the playboy politician out. He is currently facing charges of abusing his power in attempts to hide his involvement with a young Moroccan club dancer called Karima Keyek – aka Ruby Rubacuori the ‘heart stealer'.

Italian prosecutors allege that upon learning that Keyek was being held by Italian police on possible theft charges, he used his influence to get her out. Alas Berlusconi remains typically defiant – yes, that word again – denying the charges as “disgusting” and “groundless”. The trial will begin on 6 April.

The Economist takes some pleasure in reporting the antics of “slippery Silvio”, as they've called him, and the mysteries of Italian politics. Back in December 2004, following his acquittal on charges of bribing judges, the weekly magazine wrote:

“There is no point debating if the prime minister of Italy might have bribed judges. But the party he leads was created by a friend who was in league with the Sicilian Mafia. That, in its shocking essence, is what two Italian courts decided last weekend. They were giving two separate judgments, one on Silvio Berlusconi and the other on Marcello Dell'Utri, once head of Publitalia, the cash generator in Mr Berlusconi's media empire, and the man who conjured up his party, Forza Italia, in 1994.”

As recently as January 2011, under the title ‘A party animal' The Economist took another swipe at the Teflon-PM: “The solution to this crisis that might suggest itself in most other countries was flatly ruled out by the prime minister on January 18th. ‘Resign?' he asked journalists. ‘Are you mad?' Once again, he seems bent on facing down claims that would persuade most normal public figures that the time had come for retirement, perhaps to a monastery.”

This article triggered a flurry of readers' letters. One – by Nevios, presumably an Italian commentator  – underscored the strengthening case that leaders driven by megalomania can easily slip into dictatorial behaviour in an attempt to hold onto power with the sort of defiance (of the facts on the ground) that only the delusional could entertain.

Nevios writes:

“I am thunderstruck by Berlusconi's ability to deny and repel every [bit of] blame he receives by half the world. He stresses his innocence and moral purity and behaves as though everything were going just perfectly! He is becoming more and more like a dictator, covering up every misdeed that concerns him, limiting the freedom of the press… This is why I thank The Economist, and the foreign newspapers in general, which informs [sic] us objectively and thoroughly about what is going on in Italy.”

In a decade or two from now, how will the world remember the defiant posturing of Berlusconi, Gaddafi and their ilk? Or will we have so many new dictators that the class of 2011 will become a footnote in the annals of delusional leaders?


This article is published here with the author's permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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