Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan was detained briefly this week for allegedly defaming President Michel Suleiman in a song he released in 2010.
Lebanese newspaper Assafir has since reported the Hamdan has been released, but not before a Twitter and blogger storm publicised the news of his initial arrest.
Lebanon's online community swiftly erupted in outrage at Hamdan's detention, with a Facebook page dedicated to the release of Hamdan attracting more than 2,000 supporters within a few hours.
Twitter also witnessed an outcry, with the #FreeZeid hashtag quickly circulating as a means to express anger at the arrest.
Concerning to many Lebanese is the threat to freedom of expression posed by state authorities who hastily imposed a law dating back to the French mandate, against those who openly criticise the President of the Republic. Hamdan's brief arrest has reignited calls for reforms to protect free speech.
Karl Sharro, at Karl reMarks, wrote a response shortly after news of Hamdan's arrest surfaced, dubbing the detention as a form of “intellectual intimidation”:
… this incident has now given an all too realistic view of the contemporary culture of repression and arbitrary use of power in Lebanon. The song in question, General Suleiman, is a light-hearted reggae number that has has provoked the humourless authorities to go after Zeid Hamdan, in all likelihood for the ‘offence’ of demeaning the position of the President of the Republic. This archaic residue of the French mandate period has often been used by the authorities to clamp down on the freedom of expression.
While it's tempting to defend Zeid on the basis that the song isn't actually offensive, I think this is the wrong approach. What we need to defend here is the freedom of expression, without qualifications, and push for abolishing the archaic laws that provide the legal basis for such arrests. No politician or public figure should be beyond critique, and they shouldn't be allowed to use those laws in a desperate bid to gain the respect that their political record hasn't gained them. The role of art and music isn't to flatter the fragile egos of insecure public figures. Let's say a resolute no to these forms of intellectual intimidation and fight for our freedom to offend the clique of fools that is ruling us.
Oussama Hayek highlights the absurdity of Lebanon's archaic Lèse majesté law:
The news that Zeid Hamdan was briefly arrested for insulting our Dear Great Leader President General Suleiman (henceforth DGLPGS) was unsurprising, but nonetheless a sad reminder of the atavism of Lebanon's legal system. Indeed, every once in a while we hear of one person or another arrested for insulting DGLPGS.
In a normal country with a real “majesté” such as Britain, the laws against insulting the Queen or King have not been prosecuted since the 18th Century. In Holland, calling the Queen a whore can set you back a €400 fine. Lebanon seems to be in a league with fine beacons of progress like Thailand in enforcing Lèse majesté laws.
The problem is that DGLPGS is not a near-deity like the Thai royals. He is merely an elected official in a ramshackle democracy. Even ramshackle democracies can't function if elected officials cannot be (harshly) criticised.
Elie Fares at A Separate State of Mind, contends that while the law deployed to arrest Hamden is absurd, critics should tame their outrage at their own country:
What we also do is bash our country left and right, up and down. And every direction in between those anytime something we do not agree with happens.
Let me illustrate this.
The most recent example is the arrest of Zeid Hamdan today, after being accused of libel against the Lebanese president, following a rather useless song.
The moment Zeid was taken into custody, Lebanese twitter and Facebook users were up in protest. The Facebook page dedicated to freeing Zeid gained about 2000 followers in a few hours. All good, right? I mean, the arrest was ridiculous. The law upon which the arrest was based needs to be revised. It’s no longer 1926 when our constitution was “inspired” by the French one at the time. France changed theirs. It’s high time we change ours.
Another side of the Zeid Hamdan arrest was a lot of Lebanese people bashing their country, some calling it a useless place, others calling it a failure of a nation, while some called it a piece of sh*t.
Just because our political system is in a perpetually fragile equilibrium doesn’t mean the whole system is a failure. Just because power transfers easily doesn’t mean the country is a failure.
And you know what the most ridiculous thing is, our expectations are so low of anything Lebanon-related that we’re willing to believe any rumor that defames the country as a whole.
The freedom to criticise, satirise and hold accountable a state's political leaders is a key pillar of democracy. For Lebanon to be truly democratic, it must respect the principle of freedom of speech and expression.
Hamden's arrest is, thus, a necessary reminder that Lebanon still falls well behind the expectations of a fully democratic state.