By Arab News
By Eduardo Campos Lima
On Oct. 30, Brazilians elected former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva after a highly polarized campaign against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.
The divide in the South American country was reflected in the outcome: Lula received 50.9 percent of votes while Bolsonaro got 49.1 percent.
The large Brazilian-Arab community, estimated at more than 10 million people, was also divided.
This could be seen, for example, in Foz do Iguacu, a city on the border with Paraguay and Argentina where thousands of Arab Brazilians live.
In August, part of the community organized a dinner with Lula, but as soon as the invitation was publicized on social media, Arab supporters of Bolsonaro began to protest. The dinner ended up being canceled.
That kind of controversy has been quite common in Brazil’s politically charged atmosphere over the past few months, and it has been no different with the Arab community, analysts say.
The first aspect to consider is that the community does not constitute an organized group of influence, said Tufy Kairuz, a researcher with a PhD in history from York University in Canada.
“Lebanese and Syrian immigrants began to arrive in Brazil at the end of the 19th century. Europeans in Brazil were usually Mediterranean, so Arabs were always considered to be white here. They adapted well,” Kairuz told Arab News, adding that as white, Christian people and members of an economic elite, Arab Brazilians tend to vote like the non-Arab Brazilian elite.
That is why many in the community voted for Bolsonaro, said Murched Omar Taha, president of the Institute for Arab Culture.
“Many Arab Brazilians are businessmen, and businessmen are among the segments who in general supported Bolsonaro,” Taha told Arab News.
At the same time, he said, among Brazilian Arabs there are many intellectuals, educators and artists — groups that tended to vote for Lula.
Mamede Jarouche, the son of Lebanese immigrants and a professor of Arab literature at the University of Sao Paulo, said a large part of the Arab community is completely integrated in Brazilian society, so Arab heritage does not play a role when it comes to voting.
“Descendants of the first waves of immigrants usually don’t feel much 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 of the Muslim people who are concerned with the Palestinian cause oppose Bolsonaro,” he said.
Since the 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro had pledged to move the Brazilian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
He was greatly supported by the Brazilian-Israeli community, and the idea of the embassy move was discussed with it.
But “he had to give up on that idea after he suffered great pressure from Arab nations, which are important commercial partners for Brazil,” Taha said.
Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of halal meat and poultry. The agribusiness sector, which massively supported Bolsonaro, also pressured him not to move the embassy to Jerusalem, Taha added, “but if he had four more years, maybe he’d do it.”
Bolsonaro’s pro-Israel rhetoric, which displeased many Brazilian Arabs, was amplified by his evangelical allies.
His wife Michelle is a member of a Baptist church and is usually seen wearing the colors of the Israeli flag. On Oct. 30, she was photographed voting with 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.
“Many people who hadn’t decided yet ended up voting for Lula after that. Many felt it as an insult.”
Hammadeh said many Brazilian Arabs remember that Lula had close relations with Arab countries and played a central role in supporting the Palestinians. In 2010, shortly before leaving the presidency, he recognized Palestine as a sovereign state.
Domestically, Lula has also showed more openness toward Muslims than Bolsonaro has, said Hammadeh.
“When the president himself opens the doors for you and establishes a dialogue, you feel more comfortable,” he added.
“In Bolsonaro’s administration, we didn’t have the same closeness with the president than we used to have with Lula.”
Kairuz, the researcher, predicts that in 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 publicized on Oct. 30, sent messages to congratulate him.”
On Nov. 1, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent a cable to Lula in which he “expressed sincere felicitations to the president-elect, wishing him every success and the government and friendly people of Brazil steady progress and prosperity.”