Part of the tourist ritual of traipsing through Italy in August is marvelling at how the locals have mastered the art of living – and then complaining bitterly about how everything is closed.

“So civilized,” you can hear North Americans remarking over four-course lunches. “Now somebody open up that store and sell me some Pradas!”

This year, August in Italy was a little different. Many of the southern beach towns where Italians hide from tourists were half-empty, and the cities never paused. When I arrived two weeks ago, journalists, politicians and activists all reported that it was the first summer of their lives when they didn’t take a single day off.

How could they? First, there was Genoa, then: After Genoa.

The fallout from protests against the G8 in July is redrawing the country’s political landscape – and everybody wants a chance to shape the results. Newspapers are breaking circulation records. Meetings – anything having to do with politics – are bursting at the seams. In Naples, I went to an activist planning session about an upcoming North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit; more than 700 people crammed into a sweltering classroom to argue about “The Movement’s Strategy After Genoa.” Two days later, near Bologna, a conference about politics “After Genoa” drew 2,000; they stayed until 11 p.m.

The stakes in this period are high. Were the 200,000 (some say 300,000) people on the streets an unstoppable force that will eventually unseat Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi? Or will Genoa be the beginning of a long silence, a time when citizens equate mass gatherings with terrifying violence?

For the first weeks after the summit, attention was focused squarely on the brutality of the Italian police: the killing of 23-year-old Carlo Giuliani, reports of torture in the prisons, the bloody midnight raid on a school where activists slept.

But Mr. Berlusconi, whose training is in advertising, is not about to relinquish the meaning of Genoa that easily. In recent weeks, he has been furiously recasting himself as “a good father,” determined to save his family from imminent danger. Lacking a real threat, he has manufactured one – an obscure United Nations conference on hunger, scheduled for Rome from November 5 to November 9.

To much media fanfare, Mr. Berlusconi has announced that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meeting will not be held in “sacred Rome” because “I don’t want to see our cities smashed and burnt.”

Instead, it will be held somewhere remote (much like Canada’s plans to hold the next G8 in secluded Kananaskis).

This is shadow boxing at its best. No one had planned to disrupt the meeting. The event would have attracted some minor protest, mostly from critics of genetically modified crops. Some hoped the meeting would be an opportunity to debate the root causes of hunger – much as those pushing for slavery reparations are doing in Durban.

Jacques Diouf, director of FAO, seems to be relishing the unexpected attention. After all, despite being saddled with the crushing mandate of cutting world hunger in half, the FAO attracts almost no outside interest – from politicians or protesters. The organization’s biggest problem is that it is so uncontroversial it’s practically invisible.

“For all these arguments about this change of venue, I would like to say I am very grateful,” Mr. Diouf told reporters last week. “Now people in every country know that there will be a summit to talk about the problems of hunger.”

But, even though Mr. Berlusconi dreamt up the threat of anti-FAO violence, his actions are part of a serious assault on civil liberties in After-Genoa Italy. On Sunday, Italy’s Parliamentary Relations Minister Carlo Giovanardi said that during November’s FAO meeting, “demonstrations in the capital will be prohibited. It is a duty,” he said, “to ban demonstrations in certain places and at certain times.” There may be a similar ban on public assembly in Naples during the NATO meeting, which has also been moved out of the city.

There was even talk of cancelling a concert by Manu Chao in Naples last Friday. The musician supports the Zapatistas, sings about clandestinos and played to the crowds in Genoa. That, apparently, was enough for the police to smell a riot in the making. In a country that remembers the logic of authoritarianism, this is all chillingly familiar: first create a climate of fear and tension; then suspend constitutional rights in the interest of protecting “public order.”

So far, Italians seem unwilling to play into Mr. Berlusconi’s hand. The Manu Chao concert took place as planned. There was, of course, no violence. But 70,000 people did dance like crazy in the pouring rain, a much-needed release after a long and difficult summer.

The crowds of police ringing the concert looked on. They seemed tired, like they could have used a day off.

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is the award-winning author of the international bestsellers, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. She writes a regular column...