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.