Brazilian Arabs look to Lula to heal divisions and forge closer ties with Middle Eastern countries
SAO PAULO: On October 30, Brazilians elected former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva after a highly polarized campaign against incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro.
The division in the South American country was reflected in the result: Lula got 50.9% of the vote while Bolsonaro got 49.1%.
The large Arab-Brazilian community, estimated at more than 10 million people, was also divided.
This was seen, for example, in Foz do Iguaçu, a border town with Paraguay and Argentina where thousands of Arab Brazilians live.
In August, part of the community hosted a dinner with Lula, but as soon as the invitation was posted on social media, Bolsonaro’s Arab supporters started protesting. The dinner ended up being cancelled.
This kind of controversy has been fairly common in Brazil’s politically charged atmosphere in recent months, and it has been no different with the Arab community, analysts say.
The first aspect to consider is that the community is not an organized influence group, said Tufy Kairuz, a researcher with a doctorate in history from York University in Canada.
“Lebanese and Syrian immigrants began arriving in Brazil at the end of the 19th century. Europeans in Brazil were generally Mediterranean, so Arabs were always considered white here. They adapted well,” Kairuz told Arab News, adding that as white people, Christians and members of an economic elite, Arab Brazilians tend to vote like the non-Arab Brazilian elite.
That’s why many in the community voted for Bolsonaro, said Murched Omar Taha, president of the Arab Culture Institute.
“Many Arab Brazilians are businessmen, and businessmen are among the segments that have generally supported Bolsonaro,” Taha told Arab News.
At the same time, he said, among Brazilian Arabs there are many intellectuals, educators and artists – groups who tend to vote for Lula.
Mamede Jarouche, the son of Lebanese immigrants and professor of Arabic literature at the University of Sao Paulo, said that a large part of the Arab community is completely integrated into Brazilian society, so the Arab heritage does not play any role when it comes to voting.
“The descendants of the first waves of immigrants generally don’t feel very connected to their roots,” Jarouche told Arab News.
He added, however, that first- or second-generation Brazilian Arabs tend to follow Middle Eastern politics and feel closer to the Arab world.
“Most Muslims concerned with the Palestinian cause oppose Bolsonaro,” he said.
Since the 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro had pledged to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
He was strongly supported by the Brazilian-Israeli community, and the idea of moving the embassy was discussed with them.
But “he had to abandon this idea after coming under strong pressure from Arab countries, which are important trading partners for Brazil,” Taha said.
Brazil is the world’s leading exporter of halal meat and poultry. The agribusiness sector, which has overwhelmingly backed Bolsonaro, also pressured him not to move the embassy to Jerusalem, Taha added, “but if he was four years older, maybe he would”.
Bolsonaro’s pro-Israel rhetoric, which has displeased many Brazilian Arabs, has been amplified by his evangelical allies.
His wife Michelle is a member of a Baptist church and usually wears the colors of the Israeli flag. On October 30, she was photographed voting in a T-shirt with the Israeli flag.
“As a sheikh, I thought she lacked sensitivity and common sense. It was really a provocation,” Jihad Hammadeh told Arab News, adding that the photos immediately went viral.
“A lot of people who hadn’t decided yet ended up voting for Lula after that. Many took this as an insult.
Hammadeh said many Brazilian Arabs remember Lula having close ties with Arab countries and playing a pivotal role in supporting the Palestinians. In 2010, shortly before leaving the presidency, he recognized Palestine as a sovereign state.
Domestically, Lula has also shown more openness towards Muslims than Bolsonaro, Hammadeh said.
“When the president himself opens doors for you and establishes a dialogue, you feel more comfortable,” he added.
“In the Bolsonaro administration, we didn’t have the same closeness with the president that we had with Lula.”
Kairuz, the researcher, predicts that during his second term, Lula will work to strengthen Brazil’s ties with Arab and Muslim nations. “Lula has a solid reputation in these countries,” he said.
“That’s why many of them, immediately after the election result was released on October 30, sent messages to congratulate him.”
On November 1, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman sent a telegram to Lula in which he “expressed his sincere congratulations to the President-elect, wishing him and the government and the friendly people of Brazil continued progress and prosperity” .