To use that overused cliché once coined by former British leader Harold Wilson,  a week is a long time in politics. Especially for Italy’s embattled prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is facing four trials for everything from tax evasion to underage pr-stitution.

According to documents prepared by prosecutors, the 74-year-old leader paid more than €400,000 to the girls who attended the “bunga bunga” sex parties at his villa outside Milan, and his ungrateful guests complained about his nocturnal stamina and their concern about AIDS.

“Did you have any doubts?” one of Berlusconi’s guests asked another after she was cleared in an AIDS test.

“Well you know when someone goes to bed with 80 women, you never know,” the other responded.

But this week Berlusconi’s controversial private life was overshadowed by unfolding events in the Middle East as Libya became the latest country to implode and he did his own political backflip that would make a pole dancer proud.

When the Libyan leader started dropping bombs on his own people, there was a flurry of phone calls from Washington to Berlin.

But Berlusconi nervously watched the unfolding catastrophe and wondered where it would take his close relationship with the colonel who just a few months ago pitched his tent in Rome and preached the importance of Islam to a roomful of attractive Italian women.

Libya, a former Italian colony from 1911 to 1943, has traditionally been  Colonel Gaddafi’s closest European ally and Italy relies on Tripoli to fill a serious shortfall in its energy needs — about 25% of its oil and 10% of its gas supplies.

When the two leaders endorsed a $US5 billion friendship treaty in Rome in 2009, Berlusconi apologised for the brutality of the past and looked to the commercial potential of the future.

This week Berlusconi’s response to the violent crackdown in Libya has been bordering on the ridiculous.  A week ago he told reporters he had not telephoned Colonel Gaddafi because he did not want to “disturb” him during the revolt.

The opposition exploded and one newspaper headlined a story “Don’t disturb the slaughterer”, while the influential Catholic Bishops’ daily, Avvenire, called on Rome to use its “privileged relationship with Tripoli” to press for an end to the repression.

It’s true to say that Berlusconi was in a more difficult position than many other leaders because of the trade and investment between the two countries. According to the European Union, Italy’s arms sales to Libya totalled €112 million in 2009 and the Libyan Investment Authority has a 7% stake in Italy’s largest bank, Unicredit, and a small share in defence contractor Finmeccanica.

But by Tuesday Berlusconi was feeling the heat and telephoned his Libyan counterpart to call for an end to the violence and reject Gaddafi’s suggestions that anti-government demonstrators had been armed with rockets supplied by Italy.

By the end of the week the Italian prime minister was saying young people in Libya were demanding “democracy” as the government sent aircraft and naval ships to rescue the last of its 1500 nationals there.

Now the landmark treaty that required Libya to stop the flow of illegal immigrants sailing across the Mediterranean is in tatters and Rome is preparing for a wave of asylum seekers that one minister has predicted will be of “Biblical proportions”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey