Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Gebran Bassil

What Red Lines have the Lebanon mass upheaval Protesters Drawing?

Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director. October 2019

Protesters Are Drawing Their Own Red Lines

In light of the government’s decision on 17 October 2019, to increase taxes and impose a fee on WhatsApp, protests broke across the country in an unprecedented way.

This is not the first time people protest—they have done so in the last decade—but this instance is different.

Firstly, it was spontaneous and leaderless as people took it upon themselves to take to the streets, on Thursday night.

Secondly, protests are not Beirut-centric: They are spread across the country, and in political party strongholds usually immune to such movements, such as Nabatieh, Sour, Zouk, and Tripoli.

Thirdly, unlike the 2005 protests following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, those of 2011 against the sectarian system, or those of 2015 which were triggered by the garbage crisis, this movement is primarily a socio-economic revolt triggered by tax.

Taken aback, politicians had to quickly acknowledge the grievances of the protesters, estimated to be more than one million countrywide, but failed to understand how deep the discontent is.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is also the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest party in parliament, could not even read people’s anger. He was in such denial that he actually said that “these protests are not against us, they are in our favor,” only to be targeted with damning chants by protesters in the streets.

(Actually, this mass movement offered an boost to the credibility of FPM for trying hard to change this anomie system, where every “leader” and his deputy acquired the monopoly of all the consumer goods, energy, services, financial transaction, real estates…)

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was defensive as he went at great length to explain to his constituency that he did not betray them, because no new taxes were adopted by the government in the first place—a claim that is not true according to members in the government. He went on to say that, in any case, even if approved, he would vote them down in parliament.

The Amal Movement, which was silent for the first three days of the protests, came out to say that they had been fighting for such demands for the last 45 years, failing to recognize that, if true, how this makes them look utterly inept. (Actually, Nabih Berry is the Parliament chairman for the 27 years, and I conjecture that he is the Godfather of all the militia/mafia “leaders”)

The Lebanese Forces (LF) (Samir Jaaja) and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) (Walid Jumblat), which were both marginalized in the government, saw an opportunity to bring it down. (Actually the LF was Not marginalized and got more than its block in the Parliament)

LF went on to resign, but PSP stuck it out, perhaps, hoping to extract certain concessions from the prime minister. As for Prime Minister Saad Hariri, he came out with a 72-hour ultimatum to his coalition members to accept his reform measures, largely proposed in the CEDRE conference in April 2018.

Realizing how serious the situation is, the prime minister adhered to his self-imposed deadline and announced following a government meeting on Monday, 21 October, a list of 25 policy measures to address the socio-economic crisis.

Putting aside the content of these measures for a moment, it is impressive how, when under popular pressure, the government found the time and effort to produce some policy ideas.

In 3 days and one governmental session, it passed measures and bills exceeding by far the two bills—electricity in April 2019 and the Budget Law 2019 in July 2019—that took more than 35 sessions held between February 2019 and last week.

Some of the key measures that the government adopted after the 72-hour deadline include the reduction of the deficit, no additional taxes on people, adopting a pension law, and fighting corruption.

However, many of the measures cast doubt on how realistic they are and fall short of people’s expectations. They came too little too late. In any case, there are several concerns.

It is unclear how the government will reduce the deficit from more than 7% to almost 0.6% of GDP in one year.

The task to cut $5 billion is monumental, and after more than 30 years of chronic budget deficit, the fact that it found a way to do so in three days, all without major tax reforms, seems suspicious.

It did not provide an implementation to the plan, but the one-time tax on bank profits shows how unsustainable this will be. The government may also be planning to have the Central Bank carry the deficits so that its books would look shinier. Whatever the plan is, a sustainable and fair public finance framework needs to be in place, and it is clearly missing so far.

Reducing the deficit without taxing the people reveals how rotten, arrogant, and greedy the political elites have been. (It is their flaunting of their robbed wealth that exaggerated the discontent when every deputy or a main public servant spend $millions for the wedding of their sons…)

They have consistently taxed working people and made them disproportionately carry the tax burden while arguing that there were no other options.

Currently, two-third of tax revenues are regressive and such taxes have increased over the years more than taxes on capital, even though the former’s real income effectively declined in the last decade, whereas the latter had made significant economic gains. The government only backtracked when the unfair tax system triggered this revolt.

The government’s plan to fight corruption is simply ridiculous.

The same political parties enlisted corruption as a major electoral demand back in the 2018 parliamentary election, but they have done absolutely nothing to fight it. The government’s plan to adopt the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform’s strategy to fight corruption is simply to appease donors, and to show that it is doing something about it.

This time, people will have none of that.

If it were serious about reforms, the government would have prepared or even adopted the draft law to make the judiciary independent. (On paper and by law the judiciary is independent)

It would have also strengthened the oversight agencies including the procurement office. These are crucial elements to fight corruption but the government was silent concerning them.

In fact, even when the government adopted the electricity bill in April 2019, it undermined the role of the procurement agencies by having a ministerial committee decide on the winning bid—an act prone to corruption.

Tellingly, even the prime minister is not convinced of his own plan, as he states that, in order to avoid corruption in state contracts, capital investment from taxpayers’ money—which is a key part of growth—will be zero.

One would have thought that, if credible, the strategy the government plans to adopt would push for clear and transparent procurement systems. To state that the foreign-funded capital investment will be free of corruption is to admit that all publicly contracted projects are already infested with corruption. He should then set up an independent committee to review all these contracts.

Bringing the private sector into the equation through what is commonly known as the Public Private Partnership (PPP) requires serious institutional regulatory prerequisites that the state does not have.

Those who argue that we need to adopt PPP because the state is weak and it does not have the capacity are those undermining it and contributing to the public theft in the first place.

In fact, for PPP to be effective and positively contribute to the economy, we need an effective state which we currently do not have due primarily to the political parties that have governed over the last 30 years.

As for pension reform, Hariri has provided little information on how it is going to work or be funded. It seems that he was compelled to do so to appease the protesters.

The prime minister also enlisted one of the demands of the people about the “stolen money”. This is the first time that he finally recognizes the issue but he clearly has neither the intention to implement it, nor the mechanism to do so. How could he, when many of those who have contributed to public theft are either politicians or have strong connections to them?

Knowing how the government works, the timeline of the program is not feasible at all.

What is missing from the program—in addition to the institutional pillars like an independent judiciary and strong oversight agencies—are the regard for key environmental concerns.

The government has so far ignored scientific evidence against the building of incinerators and dams, as private financial interests continue to trump people’s health.

Putting the pieces together, all these policy measures lack credibility, and they hollow out the state rather than build an effective one.

The fact that the government rushed into adopting these measures shows how flawed the system is and betrays a failure in governance par excellence. These policy measures cannot and will not be implemented without effective and sustained pressure.

Perhaps, Hariri found the opportunity with the protest to pass key measures and legislation, previously obstructed by his coalition partners, to appease donors and get access to CEDRE money (European funds).

This is not what the country needs.

What Lebanon needs is something fundamentally different.

We need an effective state that works for the people, an accountable government that we can trust and that listens to people’s needs, and a social contract where rights are protected and taxes are fairly allocated.

None of this came through from the government’s plan. People were not fooled and remained in the streets asking for the government to resign.

The protesters have made key gains: Not only have they forced the government to cancel its plans to tax the working people, they have imposed their agenda and are shaping the political discourse in the country.

The power of the people is breaking down the walls set up by the political elite on what is possible and not possible. It is moving the red lines of what is feasible and what is not.

They have repealed the rules erected by those in power and their cronies and are drawing up their own set of rules. And this is how fair, democratic, and accountable systems emerge.

Note: Yo may read my third article on this mass upheaval.

Speech of Lebanon Foreign Affair to the Islamic Conference in Istanbul

After the Nakba Palestinian monster “March for Return to Homeland”  in May 14 and 15, 2018, during which Ivanka and Kushner visited Jerusalem to “consecrate” to move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv, Israeli snipers and soldiers assassinated 114 Palestinians with live bullets and injured 2,100 by dropped poisonous tear gas canisters from drones, the world community got into action.

Many States recalled the US and Israeli ambassadors. The “Arab League” met with their foreign affairs in Cairo and issued a puny statement. The Islamic conference didn’t fair well in any material consequences.

Note: After Trump pronouncement on Jerusalem in April, Palestinians marched every Friday to denounce US totally biased position toward Israel. Over 250 were assassinated with live bullets and 10,000 injured. Many Palestinians are in critical conditions and lack adequate hospitals. Finally, Egypt of Sisi opened its borders for the Ramadan period of fasting.

كلمة وزير الخارجية والمغتربين جبران باسيل في القمة الاستثنائية لمنظمة التعاون الاسلامي التي تُعقد في اسطنبول

السيد الرئيس،
أصحاب الجلالة والفخامة والسيادة،
سيداتي سادتي،

العزاء لأهل فلسطين،
والتحية الكبيرة لتركيا ورئيسها على موقفه من القدس ولدعوتنا، ولكن بعد أشهر على إجتماعنا هنا في ديسمبر 2017، ماذا فعلنا؟ أين أصبحنا؟
القدس أصبحت أكثر بعداً، والظلم أضحى أكثر فتكاً، الأميركي نفذ وعده بعد أكثر من مئة عامٍ على تنفيذ الإنكليزي لوعده، والإسرائيلي في الحالتين نفّذ بطشه.
لماذا؟ لأننا لم نفعل سوى البيانات الورقية والخطابات الخشبية، ولم نفهم أن المقاومة هي السبيل الوحيد لتحرير ارضنا وإستعادة حقوقنا وكرامتنا، كما فعل لبنان الصغير وحيداَ بين أشقائه الكبار.

لم نفهم لدرجة أن إسرائيل إستهزأت بنا جميعاً وبالشرعية الدولية وإختارت الذكرى السبعين للنكبة لإفتتاح سفارة الولايات المتحدة في القدس، وتعمّدت أن تنكبنا مرة أخرى برقصة موت وقهقهة إجرامٍ، فتقتل عمداً، أمام مرأى مجتمعٍ دولي متآمر، وبدم بارد، وبرصاصٍ متفجر، مواطنين فلسطينيين عزل في ظهورهم، وعلى حدود أرضهم في غزة.

ليس صدفة أن تختار إسرائيل هكذا زمان ومكان لترتكب عن قصد مجزرة موصوفة وجريمة حرب ترتقي الى جريمة ضد الإنسانية بقتل جماعي متعمد لمدنيين مسالمين،

لأنها فعلتها مراراً، وفي سنة 2014 بادر لبنان الى تقديم شكوى إلى المحكمة الجنائية الدولية، رغم كونه ليس عضواً فيها، ولم يجد دولة واحدة تسانده فيها؛ فلم تتحرك العدالة بل تحركت آلة القتل الإسرائيلية مجدداً.

ولبنان، البارحة، بادر حيث لا يجرؤ أحد غيره، وتقدم (بإسم فلسطين والعرب والمسلمين والمسيحيين والعالم الحر) بشكوى بمثابة إخبار الى المحكمة الجنائية الدولية بعدما أصبحت فلسطين عضواً فيها بواسطة المدعية العامة لديها، “فاتو بنسودا”، بما يسمحه نظامها بملاحقة مجرمي الحرب ومرتكبي الجرائم ضد الإنسانية.

فهل سيجرؤ أحد هذه المرة على مساندة فلسطين بإجراء فعلي غير كلامي، أو سنستمر بإعطاء براءة الذمة لاسرائيل بقتل شعبنا وسلب مقدساتنا؟
والسؤال الأصح هل سيجرؤ المؤتمر الإسلامي على تبني شكوانا أو تقديم شكوى دولية، وأشكالها كثيرة، لإحقاق العدالة الدولية؟

سؤال يطرحه عليكم هذا المسيحي المشرقي الآتي من وطن الأرز ممثلاً لفخامة الرئيس العماد ميشال عون، الرئيس المسيحي المشرقي الوحيد في الأمة العربية والمؤتمر الإسلامي؛ نطرحه كوننا أبناء أرض مقّدسة، وقد حسمنا إنتماءنا وهويتنا ودفعنا الأثمان من أجل حريتنا وتحرير أرضنا وندافع اليوم عن قدس “أقداسنا”، ما يعطينا الحق لقول كلمة الحق في قضية فلسطين.

سيداتي سادتي،
القدس هذه المدينة المقدسة، التي مشى على ترابها الأنبياء وتعايشت فيها الأديان السماوية، لا يمكن أن تصبغ بلون واحد وأن تخطف بلحظة ضعف عربية، فالهوية لا يمكن سرقتها والتاريخ لا يمكن محوه والجغرافيا ثابتة لا تتحرك، والقدس يمكن إنقاذها وإنقاذ أنفسنا معاً، إذا قمنا معاً بإنتفاضةٍ سياسية، اقله، إذا إستعظم البعض الإنتفاضة الشعبية، تؤدي إلى وقف سياسة القضم التي تنتهجها إسرائيل بالحجر، كنيسة بعد كنيسة، ومسجداً بعد مسجد، وشجرة زيتون بعد شجرة زيتون، وقطعة أرضٍ بعد أخرى، وبالبشر كهلاً بعد كهل أو شاباً بعد شاب، وطفلاً بعد طفل، فالبارحة إغتصبت فلسطين، واليوم القدس، وغداً إحدى مدنكم، فإما نقف معاً الآن، وإلا الخسارة تكبر كل يوم.

ووقفتنا معاً ما هي إلا سياسية وقانونية، مستندة إلى قرارات الجمعية العامة للأمم المتحدة سنة 47 حول أن أي قرار لدولة إسرائيل ” بفرض قوانينها وولايتها وإدارتها على مدينة القدس الشريف قراراً غير قانوني ومن ثم لاغياً وباطلاً وليست له أي شرعية على الإطلاق”.
وإلى قرارات مجلس الأمن (298/1971 و478/1980) حول ” أن الإجراءات الإدارية والتشريعية كافة التي قامت بها إسرائيل في القدس…. هي غير شرعية”، ولنعمد إلى الإنتقال من وضع القدس المعلق أو المدول والمعترف به من البعض عاصمة لدولة إسرائيل إلى إعتبارها عاصمة لدولة فلسطين.
لتكتمل المشهدية القانونية في وضع القدس، من خلال صدور القرارات التالية عن إجتماعنا:

1- إقامة دولة فلسطين على أرض فلسطين وعاصمتها القدس، وإقامة سفارات لدولنا في فلسطين على هذا الأساس.
2- مطالبة الجمعية العامة للأمم المتحدة بإعتبار دولة فلسطين مستقلة ومعترف بها دولياً بحدود ال67 وإعلان القدس عاصمتها، إضافة الى قرار بوقف بناء جدار الفصل والعزل العنصري من قبل إسرائيل ( في ضوء الرأي الإستشاري لمحكمة العدل الدولية سنة 2004.)
3- التقدم بشكوى لدى محكمة العدل الدولية ضد الولايات المتحدة الأميريكية وهي عضوٌ فيها، لإعترافها بالقدس عاصمة لإسرائيل وإعلان بطلان هذا القرار الأحادي لمخالفته القانون الدولي.

كل ذلك مع التأكيد على مبادرة السلام العربية في قمة بيروت لجهة القدس عاصمة لفلسطين وحق العودة كجزء لا يتجزأ منها.

سيداتي سادتي،
وتبقى مسألة المقدسات، فالقدس ينبوع الحياة للمسيحيين، وبحسب المطران خضر،
“هي إن ذهبت فهذا قتل آخر ليسوع الناصري، فدمه إنسكب على هذه الأرض من خشبة الصليب” والقدس فيها كنيسة القيامة وقبر المسيح وطريق الجلجلة، كُنه عقيدتنا الأيمانية، وفيها المسجد الأقصى، ثالث الحرمين الشريفين، بالنسبة لكل مسلمي العالم وليس لأهل فلسطين فقط، وهي مهد الديانات السماوية الثلاث، وليست مسرح هدم ديانتين بتهويد الأرض للثالثة.

من هنا فإن لبنان الرسالة، مؤتمن على القدس بتنّوعها، بحكم نموذجه الإنساني التعددي، وهو علمّته تجربة الدماء والأحزان، ان إسرائيل لا تفهم إلا بمنطقها، فإن نأخذ تدابير رادعة يحسب لها ألف حساب وتجبر إسرائيل على التراجع، وإما نحن في تراجع دائم نحو أمة مفككة بصراعات إسلامية-إسلامية، لا تليق بالدين الحنيف وتقضي علينا.

إذا ذهبت القدس، نذهب جميعاً معها!!! ونحن إخترنا أن نبقى معها منشدين مع فيروز: “لأجل من تشردوا، لأجل أطفال بلا منازل، لأجل من دافع وأستشهد في المداخل، واستشهد السلام في وطن السلام، وسقط الحق على المداخل حين هوت مدينة القدس”.
“لأجلك يا مدينة الصلاة أصلي”.


How the Lebanese conquered Brazil

Success came through hard work and perseverance

This article is part of an in depth special report on the Lebanese in Brazil. Read more stories as they’re published here, or pick up July’s issue at newsstands in Lebanon.


Photo of Beirut Port with ships used for migration, LERC Archives

Photo of Beirut Port with ships used for migration (Credit: LERC Archives)

Two years ago, Amin Maalouf — perhaps the most famous Lebanese author in France and a social scientist — made a trip to São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city. Speaking at a prominent club for Lebanese expatriates, he declared that for many, Brazil was the materialization of the Lebanese dream.

It is hard to disagree with him.

Perhaps more so than any other country outside of their homeland, the Lebanese run Brazil. In virtually every sector of the economy, some of the most powerful individuals can trace their lineage back to the Cedar country.

Though the exact number is disputed (see box), it is clear that there are at least 6 million Brazilians of Lebanese origin. In business, economics, culture and many other fields, Lebanese people sit at the top of Brazilian society.

Despite making up less than 5% of the population, 10% of parliamentarians have Lebanese origins.

Yet these migrants were not always so successful.

Arriving in the late 1800s, much of the first generation brought with them nothing but the clothes on their backs. The story of how they came to make up the Brazilian elite is one of free markets, risky decisions, stigma, and above all, hard work.

What’s in a number

It is widely known that there are more people of Lebanese descent in Brazil than there are citizens of Lebanon itself. Yet how many more is a matter for ongoing debate in both countries. Some estimates have put the number as high as 12 million, while others are as low as four or five. That puts the Lebanese–Brazilian population somewhere between 3 and 6% of the country’s total population of 200 million. Trying to get a reliable estimate is a lot harder than it may initially appear.

The first issue is documentation. There are no reliable estimates for the number of Lebanese people that arrived in Brazil in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And when they were recorded, because their documents came from the Ottoman Empire, they were called turkos — making no distinction between Lebanese, Syrians and other groups.

As Oswaldo Truzzi writes in the book by Roberto Khatlab “Lebanese migrants to Brazil: An Annotated Bibliography,”

“For a long time, the data on immigration flows from the region was classified under one category ‘other nationalities’ in Brazil. Only in the state of São Paulo, where immigration services became more effective after 1908, were these immigrants registered as Turk, Turk-Asian, Lebanese, or Syrian. Between 1908 and 1941, these groups amounted to 4 percent (48,326 individuals) of the total of immigrants that entered the state.”

In 1920 and 1940 the national censuses offered the first official estimates of the numbers of Lebanese and Syrians in the country.

Strangely, despite ongoing immigration, there were officially fewer in 1940 (46,614) than in 1920 (50,246). (It is recorded that immediately after WWI, as the maritime routes were reopened, more than 250,000 Lebanese, out of less than half a million, immigrated in the early 1920’s. Lebanon suffered a famine hecatomb and diseases related to weak physical conditions)

In recent years that number has fallen still, “becoming statistically of little significance” according to Truzzi. Yet this is likely due to reporting methods — Brazil’s census does not differentiate between Brazilians whose parents or grandparents are of foreign origin. Lebanese have also intermarried with other Brazilian groups, with many losing their Arabic name in the process.

Guita Hourani, director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at the Notre Dame University near Beirut, says she believes the number is between 6 and 8 million, but certainly not higher.

“Lebanon’s population in 1900 is estimated to have been 380,000. Hence, it is scientifically impossible that the emigrant population would increase to 12 or more million, while the remaining population in Lebanon would increase to 3.8 million.”

Hourani points out that some of the overestimates have come from the prominent role of Lebanese in Brazilian society. Some, for example, have extrapolated that because around 10% of Brazilian parliamentarians have Lebanese roots, they make up 10 percent of the population, a point she says is unfounded since “parliamentarians are elected by everyone regardless of their origins.”

There is also the problem of self-identification — many who are perhaps just one-eighth Lebanese will often feel proud of their roots, yet they have little realistic claim to Lebanese nationality.

Hourani believes that the Lebanese successes in Brazil are even more impressive when put into the context of their relative size. “Exaggerating the numbers eclipses the success of this small population … that has a high level of exposure in their immigration countries.”

Humble beginnings

Cheap Chinese goods flooding the market, undermining profits and forcing businesses into bankruptcy — it may sound a distinctly modern story, borne of an era of rapid globalization. Yet for those with knowledge of Lebanese history, today’s crisis in the West is merely an echo of the events that helped provoke the first wave of mass emigration in the late nineteenth century.

Eliane Fersan, a researcher on the history of Lebanese migration, has documented a number of factors that led to a huge wave of migration in that period. Among these was, perhaps unsurprisingly for a fragmented region, violence.

In 1860, a war between Maronite Christians and Druze communities led to the deaths of thousands of people. The lack of Ottoman protection for the Christian community, coupled with the fear of conscription into the Turkish armies, convinced the first few pioneers to seek safer shores.

But the exodus was really accelerated, not due to politics, but to economics — in particular the collapse of the Levant’s economy.

From the late 1870s onwards, the silk trade — the most common export of the predominantly Christian regions of Mount Lebanon — collapsed as European consumers took advantage of cheaper transport to buy Chinese and other East Asian goods instead.

As the academic John Tofik Karam noted in a paper on the period, the Chinese takeover left Lebanese exporters with no market. “Reaching its zenith in the early 1870s, the price of silk spiraled downward to nearly half its value in the 1890s,” he wrote.

The cumulative effect of a collapse of business, worsening security and few job prospects was the start of a rush for the nearest exit.

From 1860 to 1914, between a third and a half of Mount Lebanon’s population is believed to have emigrated — while well over 90% of all emigrants from Lebanese territory are thought to have been Christian. They fled across the world looking for a better life, becoming the first generation of the Lebanese diaspora.

A new start

Of these emigrants, around a third are estimated to have reached the Brazilian coast. Quite how so many ended up making the country their new home is a matter of debate.

The popular story, particularly among the Lebanese–Brazilian community, is one of divine providence. In this particular version of history, Brazil’s last emperor Dom Pedro II plays a sort of Cyrus the Great, the hero to an embattled community — offering them the chance to start again in a new land.

The reason for Pedro’s hallowed status is two trips he made to the Middle East in the 1870s, the latter of which involved an extensive tour of Lebanon. An enlightened and kind man, legend has it that on the road to the ruins of Baalbeck he stopped at the side of the road to talk to some peasants. After hearing of their woes, he implored them to abandon the Bekaa’s arid ground in favor of more luscious climes in Latin America.

Lody Brais, president of the Lebanese–Brazilian Cultural Association, believes Pedro’s actions provoked the rush to Brazil. Three years ago, she organized an exhibition to mark 135 years since the emperor’s visit. “We are here thanks to Dom Pedro II, because when he went he encouraged people to come to Brazil,” she says. “There was already a small working community and he was pleased with them so when he went he invited [the Lebanese] with open arms.”

Yet the truth may have been less clear-cut. Information traveled slowly in that period and it is unlikely that Dom Pedro’s call would have had a profound effect across the country. In fact, far from being pre-determined to reach Brazil, it seems that most Lebanese were more concerned about leaving than selecting their destination.

Fersan, the researcher on Lebanese migration, points out that many of the first generation had little idea where they were going.

“Most emigrants wanted to reach Amerka wherever this might turn out to be, before actually choosing their specific destination,” she says. “When they were refused entry to the United States (for health or legal reasons) they used to travel down south instead of returning home, and landed mostly in Brazil or Argentina.”

(It is reported that captain of ships would drop the passengers in any country that optimized the turnover of his shipment, like in Africa or Latin America)

Lebanese peddlers on bicycles in Sao Paulo, Brazil 1960 LERC Archives, Roberto Khatlab Collection

Lebanese peddlers in São Paulo, 1960

Peddle me this

Those that arrived in Brazil found a country reaching out to the world. The rubber industry was booming and Brazil’s leaders realized that the population of only a few million people meant a need for new manpower.

In the latter period of the 19th century they invited people from across the world to help build this new nation. Swathes of migrants from Germany, Italy, Japan and other nations flocked to Brazil to help make it the array of nationalities it is today. Among these were tens of thousands of Arabs, mostly Lebanese but also Syrians and Palestinians.

Yet the Arabs distinguished themselves in one key way from the other new arrivals — they shunned agriculture in favor of trade.

This was partly because they faced higher barriers to entering the sector. Due to agreements between the Brazilian rulers and their European counterparts, those who emigrated from Europe often had prearranged work in Brazil, with the vast majority going to work on farms.

Yet the Ottoman Empire had no such agreement, making access to the agricultural sector more challenging for Lebanese immigrants.

Elsa El Hachem-Kirby, an academic who wrote her PhD on the Lebanese community in Brazil, stresses that this lack of support was both a curse and a blessing. “Lebanese emigration was spontaneous, and there was no state behind them. This was initially negative as it meant they had little protection but it also allowed them freedom to work however they liked — rather than being forced to be farmhands like some of the European immigrants.”

Non-Christian migration

While the vast majority of Lebanese emigration to Brazil has been from the country’s Christian population, a smaller percentage of the population came from the Muslim and Jewish communities. Reliable numbers are unfortunately unavailable, but estimates suggest that between 10 and 15% of Lebanese–Brazilians are of non-Christian descent.

The Muslim community
Hussein Kalout, a Lebanese–Brazilian academic who is currently a visiting professor at Harvard’s political science department, comes from a Shia family. His father emigrated to Brazil in the 1960s but he speaks Arabic and has lived part of his life in Lebanon.

He describes 4 main waves of Lebanese emigration:

The first of wave— from the 1870s until the mid 20th century — was overwhelmingly Christian. Muslim immigration, he says, really began during World War II and picked up during a third wave in the Lebanese Civil War of 1975–90. The final wave, he says, started after the war as Israel’s 1982–2000 occupation of southern Lebanon grated on the local population — with many from the Shia population moving for economic reasons.

For Kalout, Lebanese–Brazilian Muslims remain more connected to Lebanon and particularly to the Arabic language than their Christian counterparts. “The Lebanese Muslims are more connected to the land, to the religion and to the language,” he says. “If you ask how many Lebanese–Brazilian Christians speak Arabic, compared to the Lebanese–Brazilian Muslims, the difference is huge.”

This is partly due to chronology, as they emigrated later. Yet Kalout also thinks the connection to the region is greater. “I don’t think the third generation Shia will become equal to the third generation Christians [in their connection with Lebanon] because they are more linked with the country, more linked to the situation,” he says.

While Kalout thinks that many, like himself, have become largely irreligious in Brazil’s more secular society, Lebanese–Brazilian Muslims remain politically aware of events in the Middle East.

Lebanese–Brazilian Muslims are prominent in many areas of Brazilian society — in particular academia and medicine. Kalout adds that the distinction between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam has not historically replicated itself in Brazil, with shared mosques and a unified Muslim federation.

Underscoring the importance of language, there are a growing number of Arabic-language educational bodies in the country. “In some cities in southern Brazil they have started to create Arab schools — not just a school to teach Arabic but a school to put your children to learn in Arabic.”

The Jewish community
The Lebanese Jewish emigration to Brazil was predominantly in the latter half of the 20th century. Since the Nakba and concomitant birth of Israel in 1948, Arab Jews across the Middle East have often faced animosity and violence.

Sheila Mann was just 13 in 1967. Her family had been in Lebanon for “generations and generations,” but when the preemptive Six Day War started between Israel and Jordan, Syria and Egypt, hostility grew toward the Lebanese Jewish community. “When we found out Israel had won the war, the Lebanese army was worried the people would attack the Jewish district [of central Beirut] so they closed it off. We had blackouts at night so nobody knew we were in.”

“One day they had a demonstration near my home. From my veranda I could see one protester putting a photo of [Egyptian leader] Gamal Abdel Nasser on the barricades to provoke us,” she says. Scared for their children, her parents decided to leave the country — initially for Israel. Within a decade, she says, all the Lebanese Jews she knew had left the country.

Yet her parents never liked Israel and would constantly bemoan their refugee status, longing for a return to Beirut. Mann, too, was never happy in Israel and at age 18 moved to Brazil with her new husband. “For me Lebanon is part of my life, my being. I cannot imagine not thinking about Lebanon. It was a happy time, my childhood,” she says.

Lebanese–Brazilian Jews are relatively few but very successful. Perhaps foremost among them is the Safra family — owners of the Safra Group. The head of the family, Joseph Safra, is estimated by Forbes to be the second richest person in Brazil, with a personal fortune of $15.9 billion. (Executive contacted the family for an interview but they were in mourning over the death of Safra’s brother, Moise.)

Mann says she thinks that the forced nature of their emigration has made many members of the Lebanese–Brazilian Jewish community skeptical of other Lebanese–Brazilians. “I have a lot of difficulties to convince them to be more open and they consider me a fool.” She now runs an organization called Peace on the Table, which brings together Muslim and Jewish women of Middle Eastern descent to break down barriers over food.

The vast majority of these new immigrants began to work as mascates — peddlers. As Kirby explains in an article on the topic, this typically involved travelling the country carrying a crate of goods for sale. “The mascate would replenish his stocks in the city, in this case São Paulo, but he would sell his products in the [rural] interior of the country.”

The conditions for these workers were extremely tough — they often worked 20–hour days, travelling with cases on their backs in the most inhospitable of climates. Yet the rewards were potentially large and, unlike those in agriculture, went into their pockets rather than those of agrarian landlords.

Carlos Eddé is now head of the Lebanese National Bloc party but he lived in Brazil until 14 years ago. He says the Lebanese emigrants like his grandfather actually felt something of a release on arrival in Brazil — leaving Lebanon’s rather stifling feudal economy for the frontier markets of Latin America.

“A fresh immigrant once said to me: ‘When we leave Lebanon and we come to this country we feel no tiredness, no cold, no heat, no thirst, no hunger — we just do it. And principally we feel no shame — in Lebanon we live in shame of not having the right house, the right clothes, not speaking the right way, not having the right education. This makes Lebanese in Lebanon ashamed of trying new things.’”

This work ethic and new found sense of freedom enabled the first generation to succeed quickly. Within two generations, peddling would be synonymous with Arabs — in 1895, Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians made up 90% of the official register of peddlers in the city of São Paulo.

The Arabs quickly gained a reputation for travelling to places that most other Brazilians wouldn’t go to — often trekking through the Amazon carrying goods for sale.

Alfredo Cotait, a former senator and the president of the Lebanese–Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, points out that this type of work means the Lebanese community is found all over the country — though perhaps over 50 percent are found in São Paulo. “You will find Lebanese in all domains. There are 5,300 cities in Brazil and in each one you will find Lebanese businessmen.”

That initial generation of peddlers often succeeded within one generation. Among them was Jorge Maalouf, who would later become head of the Lebanese community in São Paulo. His grandson Jorge Takla, one of Brazil’s most important theater directors, believes that the Lebanese succeeded due to a combination of an impressive work rate and natural salesmanship. “[The Maaloufs] came from a very important family in Lebanon but when they came to Brazil they had no money and there was hunger here. They all started as mascates, yet they made money very quickly,” he says.

Back in Lebanon this exodus was becoming a source of alarm for some in the Christian community. One Presbyterian church leader is quoted in the book “Lebanese migrants to Brazil” as saying:

“The emigration fever doesn’t appear to show any signs of decreasing … It’s become an obsession. It took from our churches some of its most useful members; many of the teachers are upset.” Yet in the same breath he reveals why attempts to hold them back failed. “An illiterate emigrant goes to America and after six months sends back a check for 300 or 400 dollars, more than a teacher’s salary or two years’ work of a shepherd.”

Crucially, Lebanese families also had a high propensity to save the profits and reinvest them in businesses. By 1907, not peddling, but wholesale clothes and dry goods accounted for 80% of the 315 Arab-owned businesses in the city of São Paulo. 

Nowadays, wandering down Rua 25 de Marco you are perhaps as likely to meet Koreans as Arabs — hundreds of stalls selling knock-off Brazil memorabilia, painting the street yellow and green.

Yet look closely and the major São Paulo thoroughfare still shows signs of its Lebanese history — the odd street name or remaining Arabic shop name. For the first part of the 20th century, the street was the trading quarter for the Lebanese diaspora — where they both produced and sold a range of goods, with textiles the primary lure.

Jorge Maalouf’s family was among the pioneers, quickly switching from peddling to textiles and establishing a major factory near Rua 25 de Marco. Within a few decades, Maalouf had become such a success he was making trips back to the motherland for philanthropy, being received lavishly by Lebanese politicians.

This interaction with Lebanon also went the other way — as stories of success fed back to those in the Middle East, thousands more packed up and left. LebaneseBrazilian companies at that time also tended to prefer to employ from within the community — when they needed a new peddler, they more often went back to Lebanon rather than employing a Brazilian. Sons, nephews, or cousins would be summoned — thus encouraging yet more emigration from the home country.

Stop sign

Yet the worldwide financial crisis started by the 1929 Wall Street Crash put a halt to Brazil’s growth. Demand for exports collapsed and thousands went out of business. Among those forced out of business was the grandfather of Francisco Rezek, later the head of Brazil’s Supreme Court.

“When the American crisis produced its effects in this country in 1929–1930, many of the businesses collapsed. Some of the most fortunate families required an arrangement with creditors in order to pay part of the debt,” he says. “My grandfather didn’t want to do it — he paid all the debts on his firms, closed up and moved to the countryside to live his last years modestly but very proud of his attitude.”

The 1929 crash and the destitution it created fed extremism across the world — not least in Germany where it led to the rise of fascism that would indirectly reshape the Middle East forever — and Brazil was no exception. As people struggled to feed their families, it became increasingly common to lash out at immigrants — with Arabs bearing the brunt of many attacks. 

Herbert Levy, one of the country’s most powerful newspaper figures at the time, was among the most vocal critics. In one editorial he wrote that “the type of immigration required by the country’s needs is that of agricultural workers and the [Arabs] are not classified in this category,” being rather “dedicated to commerce and speculative activities.”

At other times, this hostility slid into all-out racism, with Edgar Roquette-Pinto, often considered the father of Brazilian radio, accusing Arabs of being a secretive and segregated group. “Although … they are obligated to enter into relations with the Brazilians, they live perfectly segregated in their race, in their norms, in their way of doing things.”

A land of dialogue?

At the end of May a rather extraordinary event occurred: Hundreds of Lebanese people flocked to a conference in Beirut. While that may sound far from unusual, for some of the attendees it was their first steps on Lebanese soil. For these were the diaspora, drawn from around the world in recognition of their shared roots — though some had little previous interaction with the physical state of Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil opened the event, which had been organized by his ministry, with an ode to the powers of the Lebanese emigrant. “My dear friends,” he said, “you are the second wing of Lebanon, you are the wealth of Lebanon, you are the energy of Lebanon … you are the pride of Lebanon.”

Bassil stressed that he was seeking to engage more deeply with the Lebanese diaspora and that he was looking not merely for empty words of solidarity but for concrete measures to improve links.

“We did not organize this meeting just to hold an event or highlight an achievement. We want to start a collective journey together because each one of you has a success story,” he said. “This partnership means that we will have a dialogue, we will have an exchange and sharing. This is why we want to listen to you and draw on your experiences of success and rich experiences abroad.

One concrete step forward is the Land of Dialogue among Civilizations (LDC) initiative. Launched by President Michel Sleiman in 2013, the LDC aims to encourage the United Nations to formally recognize Lebanon as a country of dialogue and coexistence, where those from many religions, sects and beliefs coexist.

Edward Alam, a professor at the Notre Dame University near Beirut and one of the organizers of the LDC initiative, says that the next step will include “an electronic petition addressed to the UN Secretary that will be signed by Lebanese, people of Lebanese descent, friends and people who believe in dialogue as a tool to nonviolent transformation,” as well as a “tour to promote the initiative in the main countries that have sizable Lebanese diasporas.”

Alam admitted that critics could find the idea of Lebanon’s deeply divided society being a model for dialogue strange considering ongoing tensions. “We are not denying that Lebanon continues to struggle for peace, but Lebanon continues to also see dialogue as an indispensable tool. Even in the midst of active warfare, there were efforts for dialogue inside and outside Lebanon … We feel that Lebanon is positioned historically, geopolitically, culturally to be that land [of dialogue] especially in our part of the world.”

So far, among other moves, a Brazilian branch of the LDC has been launched under the leadership of Denise Milan, one of Brazil’s top artists. She organized a conference last year — backed by the Brazilian government — that aimed to highlight the Lebanese diaspora and encourage dialogue.

“We didn’t want to talk about conflict, we wanted to talk about coexistence. [We aim to] highlight Lebanon in the Middle East as a place where coexistence exists — even with all the problems they have. If we can pass this message strongly, it can be very important for the Middle East.

Victors of fortune

Yet the changing shape of both Brazil and the world was about to transform the Lebanese community from successful but stigmatized merchants into key pillars of Brazil’s society.

In 1930, Getulio Vargas rose to power. Recognizing Brazil’s predominantly agricultural economy was ill-suited to the modern world, the dictator set a course for rapid industrialization. In 1919, industrial production accounted for just 21 percent of gross national product, but by 1939 that figure was 43 percent, while the number of factory workers in São Paulo trebled. 

No group was as well placed to take advantage of this as the Lebanese. They had by this time established themselves as the merchant class in São Paulo, the country’s economic hub. Small textile businesses were transformed into major factories, while national giants rose up in construction and other sectors. 

By the early 1950s, the Lebanese diaspora had succeeded in becoming some of the country’s top industrialists.

In 1954 Lebanese President Camille Chamoun visited Brazil and was received in lavish fashion by a diaspora community that was both proud of its roots but also starting to grow beyond them. More importantly, there was recognition from the rest of the Brazilian society of their importance. No longer trading in the backwaters, the Lebanese integrated more, with intermarriage on the rise.

Yet while they were among the most powerful business powers of the time, those Lebanese were still far from the country’s elite; few Lebanese–Brazilians were in parliament or had reached the top of the professions. This was to change with the later generations.

For far from encouraging their children to take over their hand-built empires, many of these pioneers prioritized, above all else, the education of their children.

Antonio Chacra, a top Brazilian endocrinologist and former vice president of the International Diabetes Federation, is perhaps emblematic of this shift. “At the age of four or five my mother said ‘you are going to be a doctor,’” he says. “My father had a store selling clothes and his great dream was for his children to study. They worked and we studied.”

While the second and third generations of those original expats were now firmly embedded and moving into the professions, the continued struggles in Lebanon caused yet more waves of emigrants — with many following family members to Brazil. Yet this generation was no longer painting on an empty canvas — Brazil had grown and opportunities were sparser than a few decades previous.

While some more recent immigrants have managed to build empires, more often they have found themselves frustrated. The parents of Samir Yazbek, one of the country’s top playwrights, were deeply disappointed shortly after arriving in the 1950s.

In ‘The Cedar Leaves,’ one of his most famous works, Yazbek recalls how his father’s desperate dreams of making a fortune ripped the family apart. “He traveled all over the country looking for work, starting in São Paulo in textiles, then moving to the northeast to work in construction. In the end he went looking for gold in the north, leaving us behind in São Paulo.” Did he find any? “No,” he smiles, “he ended up working in a hydroelectric dam.”

Even if Yazbek succeeded, his father’s story of frustration and failure was typical of the later generation of immigrants. Relatively few that arrived in that period have risen to the upper echelons of society.

A new identity

Nowadays, the extent of Lebanese influence in Brazil is also matched by their integration. Far from being the closed community that critics called their forefathers, the Lebanese community is now highly mixed into society, intermarriage is incredibly common, while few speak even the basics of Arabic.

Kirby puts this transformation down to a process of emigration into an open society such as Brazil’s. She stresses that now Lebanese–Brazilian identity is more of a form of recognition that can help open doors with other members of the community but little more than that.

At the start they organized as a community, as did the Italians, the Japanese and other groups. Over time they integrated into the economic and social fabric. Because they were successful, what was a community transformed into a network.”

In economics, politics, the arts and many other fields, those of Lebanese origin now occupy some of the top rungs of the ladder. Yet their primary identity is now that of Brazilian, with their family origins a secondary factor.

Ramiro Fajuri, sales director of Chams magazine that focuses on the Arab diaspora in Brazil, puts it another way. He says that while Lebanese–Brazilians are usually incredibly proud of their heritage, these roots are now only a small part of their identity.

Fajuri, who points out that his wife is Brazilian of Japanese descent, thinks this confidence in themselves makes them happy in their identities. “We couldn’t keep the language but we kept some culture, the traditions, the social clubs,” he says. “I guess this is what [Amin] Maalouf meant.”

Joe is a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering the Syrian crisis, oil and gas, and Lebanese government and regulatory authorities, among other topics. He was Executive’s online editor from 2012 to 2014, and led the Economics & Policy section from 2013 to 2014.




May 2023

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