Come the Arab awakening, most youth in Lebanon would have expected to be at the heart of the struggles for freedom and democracy in the Middle East. After all, Lebanon has long been known for many of the qualities that inspired revolts elsewhere: a hide-bound political system, corrupt elites, and a young, plugged-in population.
Instead, since the events collectively referred to as the "Arab Spring" began, Lebanon has found itself at the very margins of this revolutionary wave. To make matters worse, the country seems to be sliding into a pattern of petty authoritarianism -- highlighted by erratic acts of censorship and attacks on the freedom of expression -- that hardly befits a nation that likes to think of itself as the advance guard of political freedom in the Arab world.
Rather than embracing the struggle for democracy and freedom, the Lebanese authorities are grappling with another matter entirely: the Case of the Superman Underwear. As if it's not enough for the country to be sidelined from major historic events, Lebanon's irrelevance has been compounded with elements of parody.
But first, the facts of this bizarre case. A month from now, two Lebanese performers, comedian Edmund Hedded and actress Rawya al-Chab, will face a court of appeal hearing in Beirut to defend themselves against charges of "breaching public morals and inciting debauchery."
The Victorian-sounding allegations relate to a fundraising event the pair participated in two years ago, during which several men were "auctioned" for charity. Chab presented the show, which was held at a bar in the trendy Gemmazye neighborhood, and Hedded was one of the auctioned bachelors. In an attempt to raise the bidding, Hedded flashed a few square inches of his Superman boxer shorts while Chab made a few mildly suggestive remarks about him.
A few days later, an article about the event appeared in the youth section of the daily al-Nahar, written by someone who had completely failed to understand the nature of the charity auction. The article was accompanied by a photograph showing Hedded flashing his underwear -- enough for the authorities, who clearly have no more serious threats to grapple with in this strife-ridden country, to initiate an investigation. Hedded and Chab were found guilty last November; their sentence was either a fine of $133, or one month in jail. They decided to challenge the absurd ruling, setting the stage for the appeal.
This curious case came to public attention amid a general unease about expanding censorship and official intolerance. Several activists were recently arrested for spray-painting graffiti on Beirut's walls, some of it supportive of the uprising in neighboring Syria. While the activists have been released from jail, at least one is still facing charges of "defacing public property." Several films and artwork have also faced censorship in the Arab world's self-styled oasis of free expression -- a popular musician was also arrested for several hours last year for a satirical reggae song he composed. It was suggested that the line "Go home, General Suleiman," had defamed the former army commander and current president, Michel Suleiman.