Argument

The Case of the Superman Underwear

As people across the Middle East struggle for freedom, Lebanon descends into farce.

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.

The pro-Syrian uprising graffiti is explicitly political, and goes against the government's officially friendly stance toward the regime in Damascus. Of course, it's hypocritical for Lebanese authorities to fixate on this crime, when there's hardly a wall in Beirut that isn't plastered with graffiti or posters in support of the local strongman -- but their motives are at least comprehensible. It's much harder, however, to grasp the rationale behind the Case of the Superman Underwear. Given that Hedded and Chab's antics were not even remotely more daring than the average Lebanese talk show -- or more lascivious than the skimpily-clad belly dancers who regularly parade across family television shows -- it's hard to see how the performers could be guilty of "violating social norms."

Unfortunately, the authorities may have the letter of the law on their side. Beirut enjoys a reputation for greater permissiveness than is the norm in other Arab societies, but Lebanon does have many restrictive laws regulating social behavior on the books. These regulations, such as the one that ensnared the Superpantswearers, were mainly inherited from the French Mandate era. Following the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, Lebanese governments had restricted the zealous implementation of such laws, especially when it came to artistic freedom and matters of expression. But the current government has reverted to a more literal implementation of the law.

Hedded's and Chab's decision to challenge the ruling has galvanized support among activists increasingly frustrated by these arbitrary prosecutions. For many Lebanese, it is seen as a symptom of a government that has completely lost a sense of its priorities. It's not only that the regional wave for greater freedom has passed Lebanon by: The current government has also failed to address the most basic challenges facing the country, including dealing with the chronic electricity shortages, controlling high inflation, and approving the national budget. It's doing itself no favors by allowing humorless officials to pursue outrageous legal cases.

The punishment that Hedded and Chab face is, of course, minimal in comparison to the threats that thousands across the region are exposed to on a daily basis. But those sympathetic to the two performers insist on considering it a freedom of expression issue --  a right guaranteed by the Lebanese constitution and one worth fighting for.

There is something both inspiring and absurd about this. On the one hand, it is good to see Lebanese unwilling to compromise with petty authoritarianism -- but on the other, it's disgraceful for matters like this to preoccupy Lebanon at this transformative moment in the Middle East. Here's hoping that the Case of the Superman Underwear proves to be Kryptonite for the hundreds of little dictators running rampant in Beirut.

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