Public support for Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan
It could have been something straight from the "how to promote your new album" chapter in the publicity stunt handbook. But this wasn't in the UK or US, nor was the musician a reality TV contestant or a manufactured rock star.
On Wednesday July 27, Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon's music scene for more than a decade and the frontman of the eclectic indie group Zeid and the Wings, was arrested in Beirut. The charge: defaming the president.
"Dear friends, I am now in the prison of the police station of the Palace of Justice in Beirut because of my song 'General Soleiman'. They are prosecuting me for defammation of President Soleiman. I dont know, until when I am staying in prison. Please mobilize!" was the Facebook message that immediately alerted fans to the situation.
General Suleiman was actually recorded in 2008 and the video uploaded to YouTube last year. At the time it caused a bit of a stir, with politically charged lyrics bouncing cleverly over the cheery reggae beat. Hamdan said the song was a plea for peace after the violent clashes in 2008 between Hizbollah and rival groups, a call to the former general whose election that year had carried with it so much hope. "I was inspired to write this very simple and naive reggae song - a fantasy about what the rule of Gen Suleiman could become."
The lyrics of the song urge President Michel Suleiman to rid Lebanon of the militias, foreign influence and corruption. "Put your weapons down, put your weapons down, now it's time to leave your warlords behind." The song ends: "General Suleiman, go home."
The video - a comical, colourful affair shot in Beirut by the Italian director Gigi Roccata - instantly went viral. But it was only a year later, when the director mailed a show reel featuring the song to the Lebanese advertising agency Leo Burnett, that it was intercepted by customs and handed to the authorities, prompting Hamdan's arrest.
The response was instantaneous. Word spread like wildfire across Facebook and Twitter, provoking large-scale condemnation of Lebanese authorities and of attacks on freedom of speech.
A statement uploaded online by Hamdan's lawyer, Nizar Saghia, said his client could face up to two years in jail under law numbers 384 and 386. "What makes it really regrettable is that it happened in Lebanon at a time when we see revolutions in different Arab countries, to remove the holy status of Arab presidents and give back honour to Arab citizens," he added. "We ask the public to take a stand to defend the republic's freedom in Lebanon."
And take a stand the public did, with an outpouring of support across social media sites and a rallying call by various Lebanese activists for demonstrations. The UAE-based social media monitoring blog SocialEyez said the hashtag #freezeid had seen 577 Twitter posts in just two hours following the musician's arrest and there had been 2,116 social media mentions within a day. The obligatory "Free Zeid Hamdan from Jail" Facebook page quickly topped 2,000 likes.
And just a few hours after his arrest, he was released.
Speaking following the incident, Hamdan has disputed the supposed presidential slurs his lyrics are alleged to have contained. He claims that the song makes a parallel between several African countries - where power has been acquired through the violence of armed military forces - and Lebanon, where the president, a former military man, didn't actually resort to the army when handling two rival factions.
"So the song is actually a metaphor for a man of peace," he told Mashallah News. "The lyrics describe how beneficial his role was for pacifying the country."
And as for the most incendiary element, the final call to "go home", this he says is directed at the military in general. "Once your job is done, you should go back to your barracks and don't interfere in political life any more."
"I don't even think he [President Suleiman] was aware I was arrested," Hamdan told the NOW Lebanon website. "This is not good publicity for him."
Hamdan still faces trial, although the hope is that the public response and potential embarrassment in jailing someone regarded by many as a cultural hero will see the case closed. Whatever happens, the incident has inflamed arguments regarding freedom of expression across Lebanon and seen the video for General Suleiman played all over the world.
Coincidentally, Hamdan's arrest came just a few days after the launch of Aasfeh, Zeid and the Wings' debut album, a blend of rock, electro, reggae and Arabic folk. The distributors might want to burn a few more CDs.
Updated: August 9, 2011 04:00 AM