Friday, April 27, 2012

The war of the walls

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel may have lamented the country’s “weak” security forces on Thursday, but there is at least one front on which they’ve shown remarkable fortitude this year: the stifling of political dissent. On Friday, two months after police charged the artist Semaan Khawam with disrupting public order for stenciling an image of a soldier in Gemmayzeh, the military police detained activists Ali Fakhry and Khodr Salameh without charge after finding them spray-painting a graphic in support of the Syrian uprising in Beirut’s Ras al-Nabaa district.

The pair were held and interrogated for almost 24 hours in four different military and security institutions, before being released on Saturday night amid concerted pressure from fellow activists demonstrating outside the Internal Security Forces building in Verdun. Salameh described the arrest to NOW as follows: “At around 11 p.m. Friday night, after finishing the graffiti, we were driving away when a soldier stopped us and called for an officer, who arrived with 15 or 20 other soldiers. They searched the car and then took us to the Fifth Intervention Regiment base in Karantina, where we were forced to stand handcuffed for two hours while they questioned us and confiscated everything in the car.”

Later, they were transferred to another military base, where they were falsely accused of evading an army checkpoint, according to Fakhry. “Then they closed us in a cell, an extremely dirty, small one, where you have the toilet in it, and the smell, and cockroaches climbing all over you, for nearly eight hours. At 11 a.m., they took us for another interrogation, where they asked us who was behind us, who was funding us, which foreign powers were giving us orders.” This continued at a third, then a fourth location, before they were eventually freed.

As NOW has previously reported, there is no law against graffiti in Lebanon, and security forces encountering artists at work ordinarily turn a blind eye. A clue to the difference in Fakhry and Salameh’s case may lie in the nature of the graphic they stenciled: a fist of solidarity surrounded by a recycle logo, with the words “The revolution continues – Syria” underneath in Arabic. For Ayman Mhanna, director of the Samir Kassir eyes (SKeyes) Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, this “definitely affected how they were dealt with.” As he told NOW, “The sensitivity right now in the Lebanese government and security apparatuses related to the Syrian issue is clear. Syria is a red line in their minds. They always like to say they are ‘dissociating’ themselves, whatever that means, from what’s happening in Syria - except when it comes to freedom of expression.”

Fakhry appears to agree: “We firmly believe our arrest was political. Doing a stencil does not justify being imprisoned in a cell and psychologically tortured in that way by four different military security departments. They wanted to make an example of us. They’re trying to shut up the youth from expressing themselves on the walls of Beirut.”

Perhaps ironically, the graphic that got the pair arrested was actually intended as a dig at both the regime and the opposition: “[The recycle logo] was a call for the Syrian revolution to correct its path. The true path is to get rid of the dictatorship, not to ask for international intervention, and definitely not to ask the Syrian regime to change its attitude. We want to remove this regime,” said Fakhry. And he is keen to stress the internationalism of his cause, which he staunchly denies is affiliated with Lebanese party politics: “We are entirely independent activists supporting all the Arab revolutions. We are with the Syrian revolution, and at the same time we’re with the Bahraini revolution and the Saudi Arabian revolution. We are neither March 14 nor March 8, because we believe that both are the source of problems in this country. For us, to write ‘Down with the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad’ is the same as writing ‘Down with Solidere’.”

Indeed, theirs is only one of many pro-Syrian-uprising stencils to have appeared in recent weeks, both in Lebanon and the wider region. Their idea, said Fakhry, was inspired by the Syria Freedom Graffiti Week campaign, which saw activists spray anti-Syrian-regime graphics in the streets of a host of Arab countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. But even prior to this, he added, a “war on the walls of Beirut” has been waged over the past six months, “especially between pro- and anti-Syrian-revolution people. We spray ‘Down with Bashar’ one day, then the next someone else will spray ‘Long live Bashar’ over the top.” Salameh agreed, pointing out that the night after their arrest, “someone sprayed our graffiti in black to cover it.”

A spirit of defiance, in other words, appears to be gathering, as freedom of expression in Lebanon faces renewed threats. On Sunday, NOW reported the launch of the FREE newsletter, which aims to combat the country’s censorship laws. And more than 450 have pledged to attend on Tuesday, May 1 a demonstration in Hamra in which participants are encouraged to “communicate with Beirut’s walls and alleys” by spraying graffiti, playing music, dancing or expressing themselves however they see fit.

“It’s a very natural and healthy reaction from the freedom and art activists, because the repression of freedom of expression in the last few months has reached totally unacceptable levels. It’s unprecedented,” said Mhanna, adding that still more is to come. “We at SKeyes are also getting ready for a radical campaign against censorship. And you will see many more such initiatives in the near future.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting for this article.

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