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EL ESPECTADOR

What About Lula? Why Brazil's Economic Mess Isn't All Dilma's Fault

Lula da Silva spent liberally when the Brazilian economy was booming, leaving Dilma Rousseff to face the deferred impact of the global recession. His personal popularity aside, the country's current woes are largely his fault.

Rousseff and then Brazilian President Lula, back in 2010
Rousseff and then Brazilian President Lula, back in 2010
Danilo Arbilla

-OpEd-

Whatever the exact figures, the March 15 protests in Brazil were among the biggest in its history. There were anti-government demonstrations in no fewer than 65 cities and 17 states. Those not protesting presumably included the 40 million Brazilians who receive "Bolsa Familia"benefits — about $35 a month for every member of a poor household — which previous President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva boasted had ended poverty.

His tenure was marked by prosperity and easy money, neither of which describe today's Brazil. Lula's strategy was to give fish to the poor, without bothering to teach them how to make their own catches. The annual cost of this subsidy is around $11.5 billion. What would happen if the government of President Dilma Rousseff were to start making cuts there? Best not to think about it. The government has committed for now not to touch those benefits even though money is not something it can simply print at will, as Lula's successor and precarious election victor is discovering.

What would Lula say? Almost two years ago, at the time of the 2013 protests, Lula wrote a piece in The New York Times offering his support for the protests and saying the country needed major political reforms. These would be the reforms he had not undertaken as president, when he enjoyed throwing money around and keeping his party's voters. Yet in 2013, he gave his blessing to all the young people demanding cleaner, more transparent institutions.

Unrest

Today, the young and not so young are making some very specific demands in their protests. They are calling not just for Rousseff to go but also the Workers' Party that Lula founded. Some protesters even carried placards calling for a return of the military. All protesters are demanding punishment for those responsible in the Petrobras scandal, in which it is estimated that some $4 billion was siphoned off to pay the Workers' Party and opposition politicians.

The Petrobras case has overshadowed the 2005 "mensalão" scandal, in which the Lula administration was accused of buying congressional votes. That led to the conviction of José Dirceu, Lula's right-hand man and cabinet chief, and several other senior Workers' Party officials. But nothing happened to Lula, and he's not facing any heat now with Petrobras or in the protests, even though he was president when all this began.

March 15 anti-government protest in Rio — Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Pacific Press/ZUMA

"The thing is, in Brazil they see Lula like some kind of god who never does anything wrong," a Brazilian colleague told me.

Yet they vent their fury on Rousseff, the president fighting corruption and paying the price for the fact that money was spent in such a frivolous, irresponsible manner during the good times. Lula was regarded as some kind of a miracle worker, and Rousseff is left with the bill: rising inflation, tax hikes, gasoline and electricity bills, cutbacks, a stagnating GDP, an imminent trade deficit and a more expensive dollar.

People are protesting, refusing to accept that the problems are caused from outside the country. There is an element of truth to this: The demand bonanza came from abroad, until it stopped coming. The problem is that measures weren't taken in time to anticipate a recession.

Since people weren't told the truth in "good times," but were instead promised World Cups and Olympic Games and told they had the world's biggest oil reserves, they're not buying now the idea that problems are coming from elsewhere.

They've not yet realized what Lula's share of the responsibility is, and that he certainly was not the god he had the Brazilians and many others believe.

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Geopolitics

Patronage Or Politics? What's Driving Qatar And Egypt Grand Rapprochement

For Cairo, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil,” with anger directed at Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, and others critical of Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood ouster. But the vitriol is now gone, with the first ever visit by Egyptian President al-Sisi to Doha.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with the Emir of Qatar in June 2022 in Cairo

Beesan Kassab, Daniel O'Connell, Ehsan Salah, Hazem Tharwat and Najih Dawoud

For the first time since coming to power in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi traveled to Doha last month on an official visit, a capstone in a steadily building rapprochement between the two countries in the last year.

Not long ago, however, the photo-op capturing the two heads of state smiling at one another in Doha would have seemed impossible. In the wake of the Armed Forces’ ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Qatar and Egypt traded barbs.

In the lexicon of the intelligence-controlled Egyptian press landscape, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil” working to undermine Egypt’s stability. Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, was banned from Egypt, but, from its social media accounts and television broadcast, it regularly published salacious and insulting details about the Egyptian administration.

But all of that vitriol is now gone.

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