Update, January 2012: David Peisner, author of "Inside Tunisia's Hip-Hop Revolution," shared some great insights with me about Tunisian hip hop via email. Mr. Peisner has graciously allowed me to repost our correspondence here, so please scroll to the bottom of this article to read his comments.
Like many people, I first took notice of Arabic hip hop because of El Général and the Tunisian Revolution. The story has practically passed into mythology now. For a few critical days, a 21 year-old rapper from Sfax had a more powerful voice than the dictator of Tunisia himself. On October 23, Tunisia will hold the first truly free elections in its history when it elects a new constitutional assembly. El Général's story illuminates, with a vividness that few others can match, how Tunisia got to this point and where it might be going from here.
On November 7, 2010, Hamada Ben-Amor, a young rapper from Sfax known as "El Général," posted this jeremiad against the regime of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Youtube and Facebook:
The video begins with a clip from Tunisian state television of Ben Ali attempting to soothe a sobbing schoolchild. The little boy, whose parents have evidently taught him something of the regime's true nature, must be terrified about being face-to-face with the dictator who destroyed so many Tunisians' lives. Ben Ali, clearly flustered, tells the child, "Why are you worried? Would you tell me something? Don't be afraid!"
The video then cuts to El Général, smoking a cigarette and hiding his face in shadows like Hal Halbrook's Deep Throat in All the President's Men. Général conceals his face with shadows, digital alterations, and a baseball cap throughout the video. Intriguingly, though, he seems to reveal enough of himself and his mannerisms to let his acquaintances (and, presumably, the secret police) figure out his real identity. El Général's friend and fellow rapper RTM told David Peisner of Spin that, "When Hamada recorded ["Rais lebled"], I tried to convince him to be worried. Rap like this may lead him to death. I tried to convince him to convey his message implicitly. He just smiled and told me he's ready for the consequences." El Général acknowledges these entreaties in "Rais lebled" when he raps, "I see so much injustice and that's why I chose to speak/even though many people told me that my end will be execution." In fact, El Général had no idea what was in store for him. "I expected it might get me in trouble but I didn't think the president would be ousted," he told Peisner. "I didn't know there would be a revolution."