Melancholic transition in Brasilia

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

With less than two days to go before the Brazilian Senate committee is expected to vote to accept the impeachment complaint filed against President Dilma Rousseff, her aides and ministers are getting ready for life after the Dilma presidency.

Her chief of staff Jaques Wagner is thinking of going back to his home state of Bahia to perhaps work in the state government as head of a department. The minister of social communication, Edinho Silva, is thinking of returning to his hometown of Araraquara, Sao Paulo, and running for mayor in the October municipal elections. He was the mayor of the town from 2001 to 2008.

Although she will be allowed to stay in the presidential palace for the maximum 180 days that the whole Senate has to vote on the impeachment complaint, the atmosphere among her aides is one of defeat and departure. According to the O Globo daily, Dilma is thinking of mounting a small group of her closest advisors who would stay and work with her during her period of exile from the presidency.

But no one seems to know how the transition from a Dilma presidency to that of Michel Temer, who is currently the vice-president, is going to unfold. One minister, according to O Globo, in a fit of anger threatened to delete all of his important files to make life difficult for the new government. Other ministries are preparing transition documents which highlight each ministry’s ongoing contracts and obligations. One minister supposedly suggested at a recent meeting with President Dilma that a formal transition process be started, but he was immediately shut down.

President Dilma has vowed to go down fighting the impeachment charges against her to the very last moment. She will not be alone in her fight. Former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, the Workers Party and a wide leftist alliance called the Sole Leftist Front have vowed to rally around her by holding nationwide protests against what they call a coup attempt against her presidency.

She has already started attacking the coming government of Temer, claiming that he will cut social service programs, such as the “Bolsa Familia” program which gives cash payments to the very poor every month. O Globo denied this in a front-page story on Sunday, pointing out that Dilma’s administration itself had already cut social services by 87 percent this year alone because of the severe recession that Brazil is going through.  According to the paper, spending on crèches had shrunk by R$3.7 billion (around US$1 billion), and the low-cost housing project of the federal government has suffered a loss of R$20 billion (US$5.7 billion) in funding.

The camp of Temer has been extremely busy, holding whirlwind meetings with politicians and technocrats, in preparation for the new administration. The vice-president said he wanted to cut the number of ministries from the current 32 to a much trimmer 26. Most of this would be accomplished by merging ministries, such as those of education and culture. But he has run into the reality that he will have to give out ministerial posts as rewards to the various smaller parties who have switched their support from Dilma to him.

According to Veja magazine, the Temer camp is frantically studying ways of cutting the government’s spending while at the same looking for measures that would help jump start the ailing economy. Among the measures being studied are the partial privatization of the Post Office, Infraero (the federal operator of airports), and Eletrosul. They also want to cut spending in this year’s budget by 68 percent, fire 4,000  appointed federal government workers, and fix 65-years of age as the minimum retirement age.

Temer is also thinking of appointing Sen. Jose Serra as his foreign minister, a move that will be heartily welcomed by many of the career diplomats at Itamaraty. President Dilma has repeatedly cut the Foreign Service budget, and is known to dislike the diplomats working there. According to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, diplomats feel that having a high-profile politician heading the service will be advantageous for the prestige it will bring and the fact that Serra will have direct access to President Temer.  Serra, of the opposition PSDB party, has run several times for the presidency and never won. He also served as health minister in a previous administration, and was elected mayor of the city of Sao Paulo.

The polarization of Brazilian politics continues, with supporters of Dilma protesting in especially shocking ways. Last week in Sao Paulo outside of the MAM Museum a group of leftist activists spat on pictures of the right-wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro. A few days later a public school teacher was filmed urinating and defecating on a picture of the congressman. Bolsonaro caused such violent reactions when he praised a few weeks ago the memory of the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a colonel in the Brazilian Army who was in charge of torturing leftist guerillas during the military dictatorship in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and is accused of having personally tortured hundreds of guerillas.

Temer has vowed to extend the hand of cooperation to the Workers Party once he becomes the interim president on May 11. But it is unlikely that he will get any cooperation from the Dilma camp and its battalion of leftist supporters. Unions and other groups have promised to launch nationwide protests and strikes in protest. Keeping the political atmosphere on an even keel might be more difficult than improving the economy that does not seem able to sink lower than it already has.

 

 

 

Dilma in hot water

Brazilian congressmen celebrate on April 17, 2016, as they reach the required number of "Yes" votes to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. (Agencia Brasil photo)

Brazilian congressmen celebrate on April 17, 2016, as they reach the required number of “Yes” votes to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. (Agencia Brasil photo)

UPDATE: The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, voted 367-137 to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Sunday, April 18, 2016.

The impeachment motion now goes to the Senate, which should decide whether to accept or not by May 10. If they do, President Dilma will be immediately suspended as president for a maximum of 180 days. The Senate will then have to vote on the measure.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazilians are experiencing unprecedented political tension as the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff moves swiftly ahead. On Thursday, the Supreme Court met in a special session for eight hours to hear the government’s petition to have the impeachment stopped. The court in the end voted 8-2 to allow the process to go forward.

Speeches for and against the impeachment started being given in the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, on Friday morning. They are scheduled to run in a marathon session until Sunday morning, with only a few breaks late at night to give the 513 congressmen a chance to sleep. On Sunday, the deputies will start voting on the impeachment. If Dilma is impeached by the lower house, she will be suspended as president for 180 days, during which the Senate will have to debate and vote on the motion. Vice-president Michel Temer, who is the son of Lebanese immigrants, will immediately assume the presidency as soon as the lower house votes in favor of the impeachment. If he does make it, he will be Brazil’s first ever president of Arab descent.

According to polls taken by all the major newspapers, Dilma will lose the vote in the House of Deputies and in the Senate too. She seems to realize that she is on the way out, but in interviews this past week has vowed to fight to the last minute. The Folha de Sao Paulo counted 338 votes in favor of her impeachment in the lower house, with 123 votes against the motion, and 52 lawmakers still undecided. For the motion to pass they would need 342 votes. In the Senate, out of a total of 81 senators, the paper counts 44 senators in favor of impeachment, 19 against and 18 undecided. For the motion to pass only 41 votes are needed.

The whole impeachment process has sharply divided Brazilians along ideological lines. Poorer Brazilians and leftist intellectuals have remained strong supporters of President Dilma and her Workers’ Party, though most will not deny that she has not handled the economy well at all. Middle class and wealthier Brazilians have been leading the massive protests against the president and her party, calling on her to be impeached or for her resignation.

Both pro- and anti-impeachment groups have called for huge rallies on Sunday across the nation. Fearing that violence may break out between the opposing groups, the governor of the Federal District ordered that a 2-meter high metal be installed in the Esplanade of the Ministries, a grassy mall that runs from the central bus station to Congress in the center of Brasilia, with all of the ministries ranged on either side of the mall.

The wall is one-kilometer long and has already been dubbed the “Berlin Wall” and the “Wall of Shame” of Brasilia by locals upset at seeing their public space so sharply divided. The federal minister of justice called it a “crazy idea” in a television interview. Some observers have said they fear that violence may break out between the Movimento dos Sem Terra (Movement for the Landless) activists and the pro-impeachment crowd. The MST members are known for using violent tactics in their protests, burning tires and throwing dangerous objects at riot police.

The polarization of Brazilian society caused by this political debate has become so severe that even a Brazilian doctor recently announced she could no longer the treat the child of a Workers’ Party activist because she could not stand the ruling party. The local doctors union defended the doctor’s decision, saying she should be proud of what she did, pointing out that no doctor is obliged to provide medical treatment to someone they did not like unless it is an emergency or they were the only doctor in the area.

In the meantime, Vice President Temer has been busy having meetings with groups of politicians, all eager to get an appointment in the new government they see coming soon. President Dilma has been decimated by the departure of the PMDB party from her ruling coalition, as well as that of a slew of smaller parties, and is trying to put on a brave face by visiting the camps of her ardent supporters who have traveled to Brasilia to protest for her on Sunday.

She has been looking very tired and run down in her public appearances. A major newsweekly magazine ran a particularly unflattering cover story claiming that the president was losing her mind because of all of the stress she has been under. Her defenders slammed the publication, claiming the article was sexist and mean-spirited. But the president has long had a reputation for being a tough woman who does suffer fools easily, and who regularly blows up and shouts at her ministers and staff members during meetings.

Supporters of the government call this impeachment a “coup attempt,” and many observers have pointed out that some of the congressmen voting for the impeachment have committed worse crimes than the president has. President Dilma has been accused of mismanaging government spending accounts by using creative accounting methods to hide the growing deficit.

We will have to wait and see if Temer as president will be able to turn around the Brazilian economy, which is going through one of its worst recessions in 100 years.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/911446

Questioning of Lula is sign of Brazilian maturity

Anti-Lula protesters shout at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on March 04, 2016, where the former president was taken for questioning by the federal police.

Anti-Lula protesters shout at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on March 04, 2016, where the former president was taken for questioning by the federal police. (AFP photo)

This column was printed in Arab News on March 6, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazilians awoke on Friday morning to the breaking news that the Federal Police and tax inspectors were parked outside the home of former President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a suburb of Sao Paulo. This was the beginning of the 24th phase in the months-long “Car Wash” investigation into massive corruption at the state oil giant Petrobras. Lula was being taken into custody for questioning whether he wanted to go or not.

Soon supporters and critics of the former president had gathered outside his home, arguing and pushing each other. The police were quickly called in to take control of the situation, as Lula was questioned for nearly four hours at an office of the Federal Police at Congonhas Airport.

Lula took three lawyers with him and a federal congressman of his Workers’ Party. When it was over, he went to the headquarters of his party and gave an angry speech, railing against the excessive use of police intimidation and devolving into his usual accusations of the rich not being able to accept that a once poor man such as himself had made it to the presidency of the nation. It was the classic leftist class struggle spiel of the rich versus the poor.

Lula ruled Brazil for two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, and now the current President Dilma Rousseff, his protégée, has ruled Brazil from 2011 until now. While no one denies that the Workers’ Party helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty and gave them many new rights, the corruption of the politicians from this party has been so all-encompassing that practically no aspect of Brazilian life seems to have escaped its taint.
The “Car Wash” investigation, which is being led by the federal judge Sergio Moro, has found that top Petrobras officials were involved in a massive corruption, kickback and overpricing scheme that has involved a handful of the country’s major construction and engineering firms. These firms have been accused of funneling money gained from Petrobras to a host of politicians in illegal payments, including Lula. Even President Dilma’s 2010 election campaign fund has been linked to dirty money from construction companies.

Moro has been handing down reduced sentences, called “delacoes premiadas” in Portuguese, to get prime suspects to cooperate with investigators and spill the beans about all they know. The latest person to do so was Sen. Delcidio Amaral, the former head of the ruling party in the Senate. He was arrested late last year and just released a few weeks ago after he agreed to squeal on his co-conspirators.

Joao Santana, Lula and Dilma’s main election campaign strategist, and his wife were recently arrested after it was discovered that $7.5 million in tainted money had been paid to him by construction companies.

To top all of this off, Brazil is going through a severe economic recession. Its GDP shrank 3.8 percent in 2015, its worst performance since 1990, inflation is at 10.67 percent and unemployment is around 8 percent.

All of this has deeply polarized the Brazilian electorate, with most of the poorer Brazilians still supporting the Worker’s Party, while more educated and well-off Brazilians are fed-up with a never-ending stream of corruption scandals.

Having been one of the most popular presidents that Brazil has seen in modern times, Lula for a long time believed he was untouchable. The relentless investigation by Moro and the Federal Police has shown otherwise.

So far the independence of the investigators has been maintained despite alleged attempts by various ministers to get some of the accused off the hook. Hopefully the investigations will continue. This shows that Brazil has become a mature democracy where no one is above the law.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/890911

Absurd criticism of Islam

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

This column was printed in Arab News on Dec. 27, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

With the recent bloody attacks in Paris and San Bernardino by terrorists claiming to be doing these in the name of Islam, discrimination against Muslims has grown worldwide.
They are targeted by these new critics, many of them American, well-educated and from the middle of the political spectrum — who reacting with horror to the violence — will say the most absurd things. “Islam is a violent religion” and “Islam needs reform to become more liberal,” are two of the most frequent accusations thrown at our religion.

And we also have the demagogue Donald Trump, the American billionaire entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate in next year’s elections. He has a long history of saying absurd and xenophobic things from calling all the illegal immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists, to saying in a recent speech that President Barack Obama should bar the entry of Muslims into the United States until the government finds a way deal with the threat of terrorism.

This preposterous statement brought back memories of the detention camps during the World War II into which Americans of Japanese origin were forcibly sent, even if they were born in the United States.

That Trump had the courage to say what he did, and most disturbing, that he was not forced to retract his words and apologize, shows that the American public is so afraid of more terrorist attacks happening that they are willing to sacrifice some of their constitutional rights. Not that the American president would have to get permission from Congress to begin such discrimination. The US executive branch has broad jurisdiction over immigration issues, which in theory would leave Obama with the power to stop the entry of foreign Muslims simply by invoking national security. But that would be bad for the freedom of religion and expression enshrined in the US Constitution, and certainly would lead to legal challenges in US courts.

One of the exponents of the concept that Islam is a violent religion is the American writer Sam Harris, who is the darling of late-night talk shows on US television where he spreads his poison. An avowed atheist, Harris is the perfect example of a supposed public intellectual that many liberal and well-educated Americans love to cite as if he were phenomenally wise. He does not speak the truth, so I refuse to listen to anyone who is so hateful of Islam. Unfortunately, a Brazilian friend of mine who I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, asked me this week what I thought of Harris. He confessed to me that was enjoying more and more of Harris’ online speeches about the alleged “Islamic evil.” I said that Harris was wrong and tarnishing the reputation of Islam.

“But I thought all Islamists were terrorists,” he told me. I was shocked and saddened that this word has been associated only with terrorism by people in the West.

“Of course not! There are moderate Islamists and even democratic ones as those in Tunisia and Egypt,” I replied. But he did not seem convinced.

Another misunderstanding of Islam is that the religion needs a reformation such as the one Christianity underwent in Europe. Islam is an ancient religion, which is over 1,400 years old. In Islam, there are several strands of thought within the two largest branches of Sunni and Shiite followers. Just within the Sunni branch there are five schools of interpretation. Not to mention the Sufis, mystics who use poetry, music and dance to get closer to God.

As the British journalist Mehdi Hassan wrote in The Guardian in May this year, Islam has no clergy, nor a pope, as in Catholicism, for the supposed reformists to rebel against. And he says that Islam does not need to go through the bloody wars that Europe went through for 30 years in the 16th century, in which thousands of people died, only to reach a supposed “reform.” For him, Muslim extremists have to rediscover their heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect that have always been in Islam, embodied in the letter that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent to the monks of the Saint Catherine monastery, and the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain.

The Turkish writer, Mustafa Akyol, recently reminded us of the concept of “Irja” or “postponement” in Islam, which means that we do not have to judge whether people are good Muslims or not, but that we have to leave it up to God to decide in the next life, as He alone can judge us. This is a too liberal concept for the fanatics of Daesh, who want to judge and execute all “unqualified” Muslims here and now.

“The scholars who put forward this concept became known as the “murjia,” or defenders of the trial postponement,” Akyol wrote in his column in the New York Times. He noted that in spite of this school of thought having been dismissed as a heretical sect, hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world still practice the concept. Even in the Gulf and other Arab countries the concept is used and applied regularly.

Islam is a dense, rich and complex religion. It is also full of love, peace, compassion and forgiveness. It is the beautiful side of this religion that is missing in the West’s imagination.

http://www.arabnews.com/news/856271

Saudi women set to make their mark

Saudi women hold their voter registration forms at a voting center in Jeddah at the end of August. (Photo AFP)

Saudi women hold their voter registration forms at a voting center in Jeddah at the end of August. (Photo AFP)

Russia extends agony of Syrian civil war

Russian SU 25 SM ground attack aircraft (ground) and MIG 29 jet fighters (taking off). (AFP photo)

Russian SU 25 SM ground attack aircraft (ground) and MIG 29 jet fighters (taking off). (AFP photo)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The formal entry of Russia into the Syrian civil war last week, with its bombing of rebel targets in Homs and Hama, places which by the way have no Daesh forces, is a bad omen for the region.  A visibly weakened Bashar al-Assad regime was having difficulty holding on to the smaller Syria that it still controlled and if not for Russian intervention in its favor, it may have been forced sooner rather than later to the bargaining table.

The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have been supporting various Syrian rebel groups that are fighting for a new Syria without Assad and all of his thuggish allies. Forty-four years of Assad family rule has been far too much for the Syrian people, who emboldened by the Arab Spring revolts in the Arab world in 2011, decided to peacefully protest against their government. The regime’s answer was violence, arrests, torture and “disappearances”. It is no wonder then that the opposition soon took up weapons to defend itself from the merciless attacks of government forces.

But if you listen to the Assad regime, you hear another story which sounds like a fairytale it is so ridiculous. On Friday, the regime’s favorite cheerleader Buthaina Shaaban appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight program to stupidly claim yet again that there was no civil war in Syria, and that in fact the Syrian government was fighting “terrorists” hell-bent on blowing up schools and hospitals, not fed-up civilians who have formed rebel militias to topple a regime that has held Syria in its blood-stained hands for far too long.

The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed the struggle to get rid of Assad in a speech to the United Nations on Oct. 1, lamenting that “the international community continues to be unable to save the Syrian people from the killing machine that is being operated by Bashar al-Assad. …Those whose hands are stained with the blood of the Syrian people have no place in a new Syria.”

The U.S. under the administration of President Barack Obama has been extremely reluctant to get too involved in the Syrian conflict, limiting itself to bombing Daesh targets in Syria and Iraq from the air, action that has yet to seriously affect Daesh’s capability to rule and hold on to its territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sensed this American hesitation as weakness and decided to step in by expanding an air base in Syria and stationing Russian bomber jets there. After their first bombing runs, in which they hit a rebel group that is funded by the Americans and killed 33 persons, the US government issued barely a peep in protest.

For sure the Russians are not rushing ground troops into Syria, having learned a hard lesson in the 1970s during their bloody occupation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Iran is rushing more soldiers and commanders into Syria to bolster the Lebanese Hezbollah forces already there. This only adds to the sectarian dimension that the Syrian civil war has taken on.

With approximately 300,000 Syrians already dead in a civil war half-way into its fifth year, the beginning of an active Russian military intervention and more Iranian troops arriving, the prospects of a peace settlement seem remoter than ever. European Union members should be at the forefront of trying to resolve the Syrian civil war as soon as possible, given the huge numbers of refugees that is has been forced to deal with this summer coming from Syria.

While the U.S. and its allies took pains not to target Syrian government forces in their bombing raids of Daesh targets in Syria, the Russians have had no such compulsions. The long talked about no-fly zones over northern areas of Syria near the border with Turkey to provide safe-havens for rebel groups and civilians, were never undertaken by the US because of Obama’s hesitation and hand-wringing over how far to get involved in Syria.  For sure the many losses that Americans were subjected to in their 10-year occupation of Iraq are one of the main reasons that Obama and many other Americans were reluctant to okay no-fly zones in Syria. But if they had been implemented two years ago, the war would have taken a different turn for sure. Now, the rebels without any protection are going to be much more vulnerable to Syrian regime attacks thanks to the powerful Russian air cover and attacks that are bolstering the Assad regime.

It’s a shame really given that the US maintained no-fly zones over parts of Iraq for years before Saddam Hussein was overthrown in order to protect the Kurdish population. The Kingdom footed the bill then, and perhaps could have contributed to help maintain no-fly zones over Syria, but Obama did not have the guts to do so. His administration will be remembered for that, and not kindly.

Saudi women making their mark

Saudi women register for municipal elections in Riyadh in August 2015. (SPA)

Saudi women register for municipal elections in Riyadh in August 2015. (SPA)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is my column that was printed in Arab News on August 30, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

This year marks 10 years since the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia restarted in 2005. It also marks 10 years since I voted for the first time in the Kingdom, hopeful that this would herald the beginning of a greater voice for citizens in the day-to-day running of our cities.
The reality was far different, with lackadaisical candidates being elected to the councils across the country, and after the initial euphoria of the elections it seemed most people promptly forgot about their local councils.
In Jeddah the municipality embarked on a super-ambitious urban planning scheme of building tunnels, flyovers and bridges to cope with the ever-growing volume of road traffic. After years of annoying and often frustrating construction detours, Jeddawis are enjoying the fruits of such planning, whizzing around the city in greater comfort.
Of course, public transportation options are still very poor but with the planned metro, things should improve immensely. Riyadh on that front is already ahead with construction of its metro well under way.
Perhaps these municipal councils may have seemed rather boring in their obsession with urban planning concerns since these have traditionally been male concerns. And although these councils did have meetings that were open to the public, engagement with the electorate was sparse and not very rewarding.
Until this year Saudi women were not allowed to vote or run as candidates in the elections, but this year they are doing so.
Already foreign commentators have tried to diminish this achievement by saying that the councils don’t really do much to begin with. But we must ignore these usual Kingdom-bashers, who will never be pleased by anything we do.
For sure the women candidates for the municipal councils will bring new concerns to the forefront of public debate, which is long overdue. Hopefully they will talk about the many Saudi women that work for slave wages, as Al-Sharq daily recently reported about the ones working in the canteens of public schools making only SR300 a month each! What kind of exploitation wage is this?
It is outrageous that anyone, whether Saudi or not, can be paid that in our country and be expected to survive on it. It is impossible. There is a great need to debate a minimum living wage for all workers in our country. By all means allow higher wages for Saudis, but have a decent minimum wage that serves for everyone, with no exceptions.
I remember interviewing a candidate for the Jeddah council in 2005. He was a well-known businessman, had studied in the United States along with his wife, and was religious. When I asked him if he could work alongside women on the council he said “no,” maintaining that a woman’s makeup and perfume would be too distracting. I was surprised by his reaction, but times have changed and these same women are now both running for office and voting too.
The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) has long had many women members active within its ranks, helping Saudi women to become entrepreneurs and offering business ideas and support for women wishing to run their businesses from home. They have proven themselves to be excellent organizers and hopefully their participation in the municipal elections will give them another avenue to make their mark in civic and governmental affairs. May the best and most qualified ones win!

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/798946

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