One sign of the seriousness of the scandal that threatens to topple the Italian government is the fact that for the first few days after it broke on Oct. 27, the country's newspapers couldn't print an unedited picture of the woman who sparked it.
For nearly a week, Italy's broadsheets ran photos of Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan belly dancer who allegedly told prosecutors she had been paid to attend "bunga-bunga" sex parties thrown by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The pictures concealed little; they showed her dressed, variously, in thigh-high boots, a red-feather bra, and a plunge-cut tank top. But they did hide one part of the anatomy: her eyes. Until Nov. 1, when El Mahroug turned 18, the press carefully pixilated part of her face in an attempt to protect the privacy of a minor.
It wasn't the first time that the 74-year-old Prime Minister had been accused of keeping company with underage girls. In May 2009, Berlusconi's wife initiated divorce proceedings after he attended the birthday party of an 18-year-old underwear model. But the latest scandal was accompanied by a torrent of revelations that have undermined the already weakened premiership to the point of collapse.
On Wednesday, the weekly magazine Oggi published what it says is video footage of showgirls being driven to Berlusconi's villa, and, according to Italian press reports, at least three of the Prime Minister's associates are under investigation for aiding and abetting prostitution. El Mahroug, who also goes by the stage name Ruby Rubacuori Ruby, Stealer of Hearts denies having sex with Berlusconi, but has said she was given nearly $10,000 and some jewelry after attending his parties. Last week, another woman came forward to say she had been paid to have sex with the Prime Minister. Berlusconi has denied the charges.
Perhaps most damaging are allegations that Berlusconi abused the power of his office when he called a police station in May after El Mahroug was detained on suspicions of theft. According to press reports, Berlusconi told the officers that she was the granddaughter of Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, and El Mahroug was later released into the care of Nicole Minetti, a former showgirl and protégé of Berlusconi.
Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing and says he was just helping somebody "in need." But the Prime Minister seems to have pushed up against the limit of what Italy's famously tolerant electorate will accept in a politician's private life. The scandal has been seized upon by Berlusconi's rivals, most dramatically by his ally-turned-adversary, speaker of the lower house Gianfranco Fini, who last weekend called on the Prime Minister to resign.
Fini, a partner in Berlusconi's ruling right-wing coalition, controls a group of parliamentarians who have broken away from the Prime Minister's ruling party. Members of Fini's party have said they will withdraw from the government and force a collapse of the coalition if Berlusconi does not step down. "This scandal was a signal that it was time to turn the page in a definitive way," says Alessandro Campi, director of Fare Futuro, a think tank of which Fini is president. "For the good of the center-right, and of the country, Berlusconi needs to accept the sacrifice of leaving the Prime Minister's office and allow the birth of something new."
The showdown comes after months of wrangling between the two men, with Fini playing a game of brinkmanship in an effort to undermine the Prime Minister without being seen as the one who plunged his country into electoral chaos in a time of crisis. "Fini's main concern is that he doesn't want to be seen as bringing down the government," says James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of Rome. "He has to appeal to the center-right which wants somebody stable and secure, somebody who doesn't rock the boat."
According to Campi, Fini, once seen as the Prime Minister's natural successor, has proposed a reorganization and expansion of the ruling coalition, one in which Berlusconi would play an important role just not the central one. "On one point, Fini won't cede," says Campi. "He's against a second Berlusconi government." Berlusconi has not publicly commented on Fini's demands, but Italian newsagencies quote sources in the Prime Minister's People of Freedom party saying that, in private, Berlusconi responded that if Fini wants him to go, he will have to "come out into the open and vote me out in parliament."
Whatever the outcome of the current standoff, most commentators agree that El Mahroug's revelations have almost certainly tipped the government toward collapse if not immediately, then after it has limped on long enough to pass crucial measures, like the annual budget. In any case, elections are expected to take place no earlier than March, when the country's sitting parliamentarians will have stayed in office just as long as they need to receive their generous life-long pensions.
Perhaps surprisingly, El Mahroug may be the one person who has come out ahead from the scandal. On Thursday, she hosted a party at a nightclub in Genova, arriving by Ferrari and wearing high heels and a blue Yves Saint Laurent dress. The clothes, she told reporters, had been birthday presents from friends. Asked if she had received anything from Berlusconi, she answered: "Silvio is not a friend."