Dynamic Times

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

This past Sunday morning in Doha, Qatar, Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva addressed the Al Jazeera Forum, a gathering of journalists, politicians, analysts, pundits and academics assembled annually for the last six years to discuss the dynamics of power and change in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The theme of this year’s session: Arab World in Transition--Has the Future Arrived?

Depending on your perspective, Lula da Silva is a miracle worker or a scoundrel, the patron saint of Brazil’s ascension to the world stage or opportunistic BFF of some of the world’s top tier despots—Chavez, Castro and Ahmadinejad. A self-made politician, Lula da Silva ran for president three times before gaining office in 2002. He oversaw an extraordinary expansion in Brazil’s economy and took eyebrow-raising potshots at European and American bankers for the financial crisis in 2009, while successfully navigating scandals and the slowdown at home.

On January 1 this year he handed the reins over to Dilma Rousseff, his hand-picked successor (and Brazil’s first female President), earning his democratic bona fides by resisting calls to change the Brazilian constitution so he could run for a third term in office. He stepped down with an approval rating hovering around 80%.

All of this is by way of background to the extraordinary remarks he made in the Middle East on Sunday. Al Jazeera invited him to Qatar--an emirate--to speak about democracy and to share the experience of Brazil, and more broadly Latin America, in its transition from dictatorial to democratic governance. And speak—and nudge—he did.

Early on he made the following comments:

Democracy is not only a speech, is not only a discourse, it is a very difficult construction that demands the participation of all, the respect of differences of opinion, and the maturity to know how to live with divergences...It is a very complicated construction that demands patience and determination and that also demands a deep understanding that the people should be in the core, in the centre of the political life and that they need to have their demands listened to and they should be taken into account. It is the people and not the rulers that are the driving force of transformation. It is the democratic institutions that were built by the people and not by the leaders, even though they may be very competent, it is the democracy built by the people that should prevail.

And later:

What is happening now in the Middle East is something easier to understand if we understand that the world needs more democracy. The world needs more freedom. And the world needs more equality...And it is also necessary to understand that change in power is not something bad, it is a need to bring oxygen to society and to democracy.

It was a bold, occasionally pushy speech, one that only someone viewed as more of a peer than a power could get away with, and da Silva's gentle opening--I came here to learn with all of you, to get to know your experience, to feel what happens in your hearts--coupled with references to his hardscrabble upbringing and well-timed interjections of dear friends and my friends, softened his finger pointing.

Love da Silva or hate him, for the occasion he was the perfect messenger for a tough-love message: credible, passionate and inspiring. A telling sign of dynamic times: an American would not, nor could not, have been same. A video and transcript of Lula Da Silva’s Doha talk is here. In the video, the talk begins around 21:30.

Al Jazeera's rise to relevance in the United States has been turbo-charged by the events of the last two and a half months, accelerated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments about the network earlier this month to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calling its reporting "real news". In February Director General Wadah Khanfar spoke on the first day of this year's TED conference in Monterey, California. His was the first video from the conference posted online. You can watch it here. You can read a February OpEd he wrote on Al Jazeera's role in the Middle East for The Guardian here. And a 2009 conversation with Charlie Rose is here.