The past 14 months have been a living nightmare for Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy. In December 2013, the Al Jazeera English Cairo Bureau Chief and two colleagues were arrested on terror-related charges. The three were later sentenced to seven years in prison after a farcical trial, at which the evidence included “footage of trotting horses, […] a BBC documentary about Somalia, a song by the Australian musician Gotye, a programme about sheep farming, a Kenyan press conference, and photos of the family of Australian Peter Greste, one of the defendants.”
Unfortunately for Cairo, the initial uproar over the arrests did not subside with time. If anything, the combination of a baseless verdict and a manifestly unjust sentence only fanned the flames of international outrage. Even Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi publicly regretted that the trio had been put on trial rather than simply expelled.
Presumably looking for a face-saving way out, al-Sisi issued a decree last November granting himself the power to deport convicted foreigners. Peter Greste benefited from this new mechanism when he was flown to Australia on February 1st. In the hopes of getting the same treatment, days later Fahmy renounced his Egyptian citizenship. Regrettably, that drastic step has not yet resulted in his being sent to Canada, although a retrial has been announced, pending which the court granted bail. While Fahmy can at least cling to the hope that he will eventually be deported, the future looks grim indeed for his co-defendant Baher Mohamed. Mohamed, who has no dual citizenship, has nowhere to be deported to and can only hope, against all odds, that justice will prevail and he will be found not guilty the second time around.
There is much to say about the terrible wrong done to Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed. The trial clearly had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with anti-al Jazeera hysteria in Egypt and Cairo’s frayed diplomatic relations with the TV network’s patron, Qatar. But rather than dwell on the obvious, I prefer to focus on a much greater scandal—one so deeply rooted that we take it for granted: the very notion of citizenship itself. As a legal concept (as opposed to a philosophical idea), citizenship is deeply repugnant to individual freedom. It fetters human beings for no reason and infringes upon their rights and basic dignity.
So just what is citizenship? According to the dictionary, it is “the state of being vested with the rights, privileges, and duties of a citizen,” who in turn is “a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection.” For example, to be a Canadian citizen is to enjoy privileges ranging from visa-free travel to 173 countries and territories to the simple right to live and work in one of the most peaceful and prosperous countries on Earth, all with virtually no concomitant obligations. In fact, other than jury duty it is difficult to think of any legally-binding duties of Canadian citizens (as opposed to obligations of anyone who happens to be in Canada, such as paying taxes). In other countries, such as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, citizens enjoy lavish economic benefits. Conversely, to be a Syrian citizen is to enjoy virtually no rights or privileges whatsoever. The Syrian state offers its citizens precious few services or benefits. Its passport grants entry without prior permission to a scant 38 jurisdictions. And Syrians have at least one crushing obligation: 18 months of military service in the midst of a gruesome civil war.
Citizenship, then, is a bundle of rights and obligations whose content depends on the country that issues it. Which bundle a person happens to possess is largely up to random chance; while some acquire another citizenship as immigrants, for most, citizenship is purely a function of either where or to whom we are born. What’s more, given the world’s division into nation-states, citizenship of some kind or another is a virtual prerequisite for people to live their lives. Indeed, to be stateless is to be bereft of the right to exist almost anywhere on Earth. Statelessness is what stranded Mehran Karimi Nasseri at Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years, as no country was obliged to take him in. In other words, even the most worthless rights bundled with even the most onerous obligations are often preferable to the lot of the stateless person: to have no place where one can live by right and not solely at the state’s pleasure.
A more honest title for the concept of citizenship would be an “Existence Permit” since, properly construed, citizenship is a virtual pre-condition to existing on planet Earth—or at least to existing anywhere worth living, given that the only remaining unclaimed scraps of land are largely uninhabitable. Accordingly, the “rights and obligations” of a citizen are really just the conditions attached to one’s Existence Permit.
For those of us lucky enough to have obtained our permits from a Western government, life is relatively easy. But for those cursed, through no fault of their own, with a permit issued by, say, Somalia or North Korea, their fates are largely written at birth. And even those who, like Mohamed Fahmy, acquire a second permit may find that their first one still subjects them to obligations that are entirely unfair: in Fahmy’s case, an ineligibility to be expelled to a more hospitable location. And for Fahmy to renounce the permit that tied him down, it took nothing less than a presidential decree—a reminder that citizenship has at least as much to do with the state asserting its ownership of the person holding it as it does with bestowing rights and privileges upon the individual. In extreme cases, where it is used to keep someone in jail or to force him to fight in a war, citizenship can actually start to resemble slavery.
When the concept of citizenship comes up in the public discourse, it is typically to extoll its virtues and its nobility. Citizenship ties us together and defines our common existence. Often, we are exhorted to think of ourselves not as mere “taxpayers” or (even worse) “consumers,” but as holders of the most exalted status of all: “citizens.” And while there is something uplifting about being a citizen in the civic or moral sense, there is nothing lofty about citizenship as a legal concept. The legal notion of citizenship contributes nothing to the human experience. It can bestow immeasurably valuable benefits and impose unthinkably onerous costs, without regard to merit.
The abolition of citizenship—and international borders—would have immediate salutary effects. People could come and go as they please. No one would receive unearned wealth due solely to the circumstances of his birth (unless someone freely chose to bestow a gift upon him). And it would be much more difficult to forcibly place a person in a situation where he had to kill strangers, on pain of being killed himself. We would do well to abolish it and the artificial divisions that it creates among us.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.