If there is one fundamental relationship that is central to stable statehood and the wellbeing of entire populations in modern states, it is the relationship between the citizen and the state. These highest and the lowest, and biggest and smallest, levels of statehood need to be reasonably in sync with one another for relatively normal life to go on in any country, leading to social calm, economic progress, security for all and opportunities for individual men and women to develop to their full human potential. Not surprisingly, the citizen-state relationship has been widely distorted – in fact never fully established – across much of the modern Arab world, which is one reason why millions of citizens have been in revolt against their governments and ruling elites during the past two years. A good example of the unnatural state of citizen-state relations is the recent string of incidents in which some Arab governments have revoked the citizenships of some of their nationals, usually as punishment for political acts or even just for their political rhetoric.
For example, last month Bahrain revoked the nationality of 31 activists, citing them as a threat to “national security.” This included political leaders, such as Saeed Shehabi who lives in exile in London, and Jalal and Jawad Fairooz, two former MPs from the opposition Al-Wefaq party. As happens in all such cases, the government said its move was perfectly legal, as its citizenship law allows it to reconsider nationality if a Bahraini “damages national security” – a phrase that can be interpreted any way the government wishes.
A year ago, the United Arab Emirates revoked the citizenship of seven citizens who also happened to be members of Al-Islah, an Islamist group that is critical is government human rights policies. Some of them had signed a petition for an elected Parliament with executive powers.
Kuwait took similar measures two years ago when it revoked the citizenship of politician Yasser al-Habeeb, accusing him of abusing religious symbols and attempting to trigger sectarian tensions (he is a Shiite). The Cabinet made the decision at the recommendation of the Interior Minister, using available legal means.
These and other such cases across the region are extreme examples of dysfunctional citizen-state relations, which often reflect mutual contempt for the other by both sides, because they have never negotiated a sensible and equitable relationship that defines the use of state power for the wellbeing of all in society. This has led to situations in which citizens are at the total mercy of military or civilian government authorities, leading ultimately to the developments we are witnessing today: citizens in their millions taking to the street to overthrow or challenge their regimes to make meaningful constitutional reforms; or governments using their military and police powers to attack their own citizens or, in the ultimate dysfunction, revoke their citizenship.
Revoking citizenship is not only a gross human rights violation that goes against all norms of civilized modern statehood; it is also a pathetic abdication of responsibility by government officials who panic in the face of their own fellow citizens who question how the government is exercising its authority and power.
For most of the last three generations of modern Arab statehood since the 1940s or so, the overwhelming majority of Arab citizens have been subjugated by overlapping layers of controls and prohibitions that have narrowly defined what they are allowed and not allowed to do. These layers of control – from youth through adulthood – include the family and community, the wider tribe or clan, the state’s civil laws, the overarching security agencies that dominate most Arab governments (especially the nominal republics), monarchical dictates, ethnic, sectarian or religious definitions of permissible or unacceptable behavior. It also includes the sustained indirect impact of three powerful regional geo-strategic or ideological tides related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Cold War and oil-fueled economic systems.
Under the weight of these simultaneous control systems over several generations, the average Arab individual has been totally nullified as a political actor or an agent of free will, and essentially has been dehumanized, forced into becoming a submissive consumer, rather than a dynamic citizen. Now some Arabs are also being denied the legal citizenship they need to function in society. It is no surprise, therefore, that so many Arab men and women are challenging their governments and states, whether in the street, on the battlefield, in elections and referendums, or on Internet social media sites that allow the Arab citizen to speak out and act like human beings.
The variety of Arab government systems, ruling establishments and socio-economic conditions varies immensely across the region, but the fundamental imbalance and distortion in citizen-state relations is pervasive. This flaw is the central element that must be corrected if the current uprisings and transformations are to lead to more stable and democratic systems in which citizen rights are clear and guaranteed, and the limits of state power are similarly defined and applied.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. You can follow him on twitter @ramikhouri.