Judging by the most recent post on his website, on Wednesday 23 October, it appears Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan was in a hurry, with adrenaline pumping and no time to check his spelling.
Under the headline “The Lebanese revolt”, his quick message urged his fans: “This is a call , just come down to Martyr square everyday until the ruling political elite steps down and new elections are organized . It will be painful and long but at this point it s a matter of survival [sic].”
Below that he posted three pictures. Two are of spectacular mass protests, with a caption that reads: “Third day of protest. There are many different types of crowds. And all crowds are dancing. It is beautiful.”
The third photograph is of Hamdan on stage at Martyr’s Square in Beirut, where a lot of the city’s protesters converged. He’s in full voice, playing his peppermint green electric guitar.
The 43-year-old is quite a big deal, not only in Lebanon but across the Middle East, with a number of musical projects. He is a musician in, among other bands, the popular trip-hop duo Soap Kills and his latest group Zeid and the Wings, and a producer for a range of the region’s leading artists. He also produced the score for the 2019 Oscar-nominated Lebanese film Capharnaüm, released as Capernaum elsewhere.
But he’s put his musical career on hold while there’s revolution in the air.
Earlier on that same Wednesday, Hamdan announced on his website the postponement of a gig in which he was one of the main acts. “We need to make sure all our efforts are focused on changing the regime in Lebanon through peaceful but firm actions,” he wrote. “We will launch our project B’يT again once our home is clean from the parasites that have infected it for the last three decades. I hope you will all come to celebrate with us then. See you in the squares and on the streets.”
The Lebanese revolt isn’t happening in isolation of course, the past decade has seen more global protests than at any time since the 1960s. While each protest has its local issues and sparks, they are part of a revolutionary wave that’s engulfing the globe, from East Asia to Latin America, northern Europe to the Middle East.
“The most significant connection is generational,” explains author Jack Shenker in an analysis in The Guardian. “The majority of those protesting now are the children of the financial crisis – a generation that has come of age during the strange and febrile years after the collapse of a broken economic and political orthodoxy, and before its replacement has emerged.
“One direct impact of the crash has been a rapid diminishment of opportunity for millions of young people in rich countries – who now regard precarious work and rising inequality as the norm. Amid widespread economic and social failure, it has become harder than ever for elites to justify power, even on their own terms.”
The uprising in Beirut erupted after the government announced a new range of taxes, particularly a preposterous tax on WhatsApp messaging. And it spread quickly. As Jacobin magazine reports, “against the backdrop of austerity measures and an ever-deepening socioeconomic crisis, workers and others without wealth decided enough was enough”.
The non-sectarian protesters are targeting “a political and economic system that impoverishes the many while enriching the few”.
Hamdan, who has joined tens of thousands of protesters in the streets and squares of Lebanon’s cities, explains in an interview with Middle Eastern newspaper The National: “I am protesting every day because I am hoping we can remove a corrupt political elite that have been there since before I was born. They stole a lot of the country’s wealth and have not provided people their basic means.”
Like in so many neoliberal economies, the incomes of the poorest households in Lebanon stagnated or dropped. Between 2010 and 2016, only one-third of the working-age population had a job, and unemployment among those under the age of 35 ran as high as 37%. The wealthiest 1%, just over 37 000 people, captured 23% of the income generated – as much as the poorest 50%, more than 1.5 million people, reported Jacobin.
The widespread protests have been driven mostly by those born after the 1975-1990 civil war. The protesters see the ruling elite, which has remained largely unchanged in three decades, as corrupt and incompetent. They demand nothing less than the complete removal of the political leaders.
A unique part of the protests has been the role music has played. “The Lebanese are showing the world how to hold a great demonstration,” wrote novelist Rabih Alameddine in The New York Times. “They are partying, playing table tennis and celebrating weddings out on the street.”
Hamdan’s musical outspokenness has landed him in trouble with the authorities previously. In July 2011, he was arrested and thrown into jail for “political sedition”. The catchy song, General Suleiman, which was released two years earlier, was deemed to be insulting to then president Michel Suleiman, who was a former commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces. Slandering the president carries a maximum two-year sentence in Lebanon.
Hamdan’s problems began in 2010, when an Italian director made a video of General Suleiman and posted it on a DVD to a Lebanese advertising agency, according to a BBC report.
A vigilant customs officer watched it and there was one line he didn’t like.
“At the end of the song, I say ‘General, go home’,” Hamdan told the BBC. “[The authorities said] it’s the worst thing you can tell him, you are asking him to leave power. So, it’s worse than an insult.”
Hamdan explained to the broadcaster that it was not an insult, just a bit of advice.
The pressure created by a Facebook support group apparently lead to the musician’s release the next day. A judge ordered that he be freed. “He said, call your parents and he told me sarcastically, ‘Go home’.”
Will the latest mass revolt get the government to “go home” this time? The New York Times asked novelist Alameddine that question. “Ask any Lebanese and you’ll get a nuanced answer: ‘Of course, things will change and nothing ever changes’,” he replied. “The opposing ideas of hope and despair seem to be held simultaneously by most Lebanese without much cognitive dissonance.”
Earlier this week, the main protest site was ransacked by members of two factions, Hezbollah and Amal. But according to The Guardian, the protest movement that has “galvanised Lebanese citizens from all political persuasions and walks of life” shows little sign of slowing down.
Robert Fisk wondered in The Independent if the attacks were to continue now. “You can see why all the Arab dictators and kings fear this,” he wrote. “If Lebanon’s people – especially its young people – succeed in their vast undertaking, then the millions of suppressed and poorly educated men and women across the Arab world will ask why they too cannot have these same freedoms.”
From a distance, the revolutions in the streets and squares are beautiful, enthralling and innocent. Yet, power-drunk bullies don’t like innocents – they trample on them with their jackboots. Let’s hope they don’t manage to extinguish this global spirit for a better world.