What is Silvio Berlusconi’s relationship to Hosni Mubarak? The Italian Prime Minister must have at least a subconscious link to the Egyptian president. When the police arrested 17 year old Ruby Rubacuore for prostitution by a minor, within hours the prime minister called the police station asking them to let the girl of Moroccan origin go, because she was the ‘niece of Mubarak’ and her release was in the national interest. It is not clear how a girl with a Moroccan passport can be related to the Egyptian president, but these are minor details. Maybe Berlusconi skipped some geography classes when he was young. The trouble was that she had been a guest at his extravagant parties and Milan’s judges found this not so funny. They started to enquire until Berlusconi stopped the process in Parliament last week.
More important, however, is that Berlusconi seems to think that the executive branch of government can naturally interfere with the judiciary branch. In fact, if there is anything such as a political philosophy of Berlusconism, it probably is this: government stands above the law because it has been elected by the people. The mandate of the people allows you to do whatever you want. This is the message of his endless rampages against ‘leftist and communist judges’ who persecute him and violate his human rights. If some of his closest friends and advisors have been put in prison for corruption and collaboration with the Mafia, it obviously proves nothing about him. As he has been able to delay his own trials until they have been barred by the statute of limitations, he has remained innocent. All that is true. But when Berlusconi limits the power of judges to do their work, when he passes laws that give him extra-immunity and when he uses his majority in Parliament to stop judges searching the office of his private accountant, then political power becomes tyrannical.
Democracy is more than the popular election of a government. After all, Mussolini and Hitler came to power by the support of universal suffrage. This fact should remind us that tyranny may not only originate in the power of governments, but also in the domination of majorities over minorities, as John Stuart Mill has pointed out long ago. In modern democracies, the division of power into executive, legislative and judiciary branches is meant to guarantee the protection of individual freedom. Laws give rights. Upholding the law is protecting the rights of individuals and for this an independent judiciary is indispensible. Therefore, whoever constrains the power of the judiciary undermines the protection of individuals and violates human rights.
The form of tyranny I refer to here is not the primitive dictatorship of an arbitrary strongman as we have seen in Latin America in the past or in Africa or Myanmar today. It is more subtle. It is a system of power that disenfranchises political opposition from society and thereby can pretend that it represents the silent majority of the mainstream. It is a form of domination that does not need open violence, but manipulates all institutions of society in such a way that the government can pretend to be based on a broad consensus in society. Of course this system produces more conformism than consensus, but it gives the impression of legitimacy, while the opposition is resigned to being impotent. Mubarak has been able to install such a system in Egypt and the American Vice President was not entirely wrong when he said: ‘I do not consider him (Mubarak) to be a dictator.’ Berlusconi is working hard in setting up such a system for Italy.
Once one accepts the idea that the executive is all powerful, political corruption becomes endemic. The only thing that matters is to stay in power. At all costs. The office of prime minister protects you against the prosecution of judges. It allows you to pass laws that are unfair but good for you and your followers. You can reward your supporters and exclude your opponents. If some righteous people stand up and threaten your majority, preserve the power by bribes and threats. The only thing you need is to win elections and for that purpose you must control the media and deliver a clear message: me versus chaos; freedom versus communism, fundamentalism, etc.
This system of domination will not last forever. But the longer it persists, the deeper will be the growing frustration in society. Ultimately it explodes. We see this in Egypt. The opposition has no leader, but the people have had enough. We also see it in Italy. The opposition is incapable, but the people are ashamed of their system, which they do not know how to change. Yet, there is one major difference between Egypt and Italy. In Egypt the people have finally stood up against the Pharaoh. In Italy, we still are waiting for the day when the crowds on Piazza del Popolo in Rome will be proclaiming the ‘day of departure’ for Cesar.