Friday, July 29, 2011

Ban Lebanon’s sillier laws

The arrest this week of singer Zeid Hamdan for allegedly defaming President Michel Sleiman provides a good example of why Lebanese law can, now and again, be an inexhaustible fount of amusement.

Wednesday, Hamdan was taken into custody on orders from the interior minister, Marwan Charbel, before later being released. The reason was that in 2010 he recorded the music video of a tune he wrote in 2008, in which he sang, “General Sleiman, you’re a mean old man,” before inviting him to “Go home, General Sleiman.”

The remarkable promptness of our security agencies in detecting this year-old violence directed against the presidential office was only marginally less peculiar than Hamdan’s oddly respectful use of the word “general” in addressing our head of state. Genuine insolence would have dictated ignoring rank altogether and dangling Sleiman by his last name. But indeed nothing is more odious to Lebanese presidents than a request to go home. Even when constitutionally obligated to abide by that command, most prefer to linger.

This is not the first time that someone has been arrested for showing disrespect to Sleiman. A year ago, several supporters of Michel Aoun were detained for doing so on Facebook, before the incident petered out. We can expect the same thing with Hamdan. His arrest has sparked outrage; observers have decried the absence of freedom of speech; the courts may take up the matter, or pretend to; and in the end the dispute will slide off the radar, with no one punished.

In a sense such an ending is fitting. It would be an embarrassment to the president if a private citizen were to spend any lengthy period of time behind bars for saying unkind things about him. After all, many a politician has done so publicly, without paying a price. The third paragraph of the preamble of the constitution describes Lebanon as a democratic republic that is “based on respect for public liberties, especially freedom of opinion and belief, and respect for social justice and equality of rights.” That’s why it is neither sensible to apprehend people for expressing reservations with Sleiman, or anyone else, nor fair to sanction only those who are not politically connected.

There are many constraints in our “democratic republic,” both official and unspoken. One cannot attack “friendly” Arab countries, and for a long time one took a risk by criticizing Syria or Saudi Arabia publicly. Yet no policeman was dispatched to haul in Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, when he condemned Bahrain’s regime some months ago. And while the Lebanese can call politicians all sorts of names, and mock them on satirical programs, this is off limits when it involves Nasrallah himself, because his supporters might block the airport road and deploy toughs to register their discontent.

In 1998, Emile Lahoud was appointed president (the word “elected” seems so inappropriate), and for a moment naïve Lebanese imagined that humility and integrity had entered Baabda Palace. Usually bright people would enthusiastically mention the president’s simplicity, the fact that he drove his own car without bodyguards. Whether these stories were true, no one could affirm. However, soon military officers were calling newspapers to point out that they were better off not depicting the president in political cartoons. The purportedly simple man was apparently soaking with vanity.

And even when Lahoud was on the ropes in 2005, the intelligence services were still active in protecting the sacred icon. At the March 14 rally that year, a group of agents forced demonstrators to take down a large sign poking fun at the president. You had to admire their tenacity in the midst of a colossal, unfriendly rally, though they didn’t quite work up the nerve to arrest those slandering “sisterly Syria.”

Lebanon is not alone in restricting certain types of activities in ways that transcend social necessity to sometimes verge on the petty. In Singapore, for example, chewing gum is prohibited. In the United Kingdom, engaging in loud sex can earn you a citation for anti-social behavior. More seriously, in France it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. Each case is considerably different from the other, but all in their way reflect an intention of the state to enforce behavior deemed desirable, but where the law also jars with freedom of action and expression.

The same logic has gone into Lebanese laws to prevent offending this politician or country or that. As in Singapore, the UK or France, we can see that the urge to write into law specific conduct—including conduct deemed to be moral—extends the state’s power to domains that citizens are better off managing informally, between themselves. It is not up to the state to tell people what they must think and say, any more than it is to instruct them what to consume.

The impulse to over-legislate also rarely works well. You still cannot chew gum in Singapore. However, in the UK the wide dissemination of so-called anti-social behavior orders under previous governments provoked a negative backlash. The French Holocaust law has also sparked controversy, regardless of the vileness of Holocaust deniers.

Lebanon merits some credit. Hamdan’s tribulations will end up being a tempest in a teapot. It’s a relief that Lebanese still react with indignation to arrests like his. But Michel Sleiman would gain much by recommending that the law justifying them be banned altogether. Among his roles is safeguarding the constitution, and the preamble is clear about freedom of expression. Representatives of the state should stop wasting their time and ours by keeping on the books silly legislation that their self-respect prevents them from applying.

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