After traveling to Qatar and Egypt to study religious citizenship, I have come to realize I somehow know less about nationality and social responsibility than before. I am less sure about citizenship’s importance and meaning in this day and age, especially in places where the next meal is more important than lofty ideals or talk of freedom. In all honesty, I practically always thought of residency and countries in terms of passports, most likely due to my rather hefty international privilege not only as an American Citizen but also as a white male of European descent. As I explored both Doha and Cairo, it became apparent that many (if not most) do not possess the privileges or other bells and whistles of a United States citizenship. In fact, almost eighty percent of Qatar’s population consists of expatriate workers who cannot become Qatari citizens no matter their position or time spent living in the country. As I talked to vendors, taxi drivers, doormen, rich upper-class, poor workers, students, teachers, and friends, I began to see a common theme or trend in both Qatar and Egypt in regards to citizenship: both countries exemplify the institutional power of a few ‘first class’ citizens over the rest of the masses. However, these institutions play slightly different roles in Cairo and Doha.
As I met and interviewed incredibly wealthy businessmen and students in Qatar, all members of Qatari ruling families who control and influence the whole country, I could only feel both lucky and guilty at the same time. There I was enjoying fine cuisine and the luxuries of life (such as ten thousand dollar sandalwood incense) when thousands, no millions of expats, worked day in and day out to amass a mere sliver of the decadence I was gifted because of my citizenship (thank you America). And, the ruling class of citizen elites in Qatar had complete control of the institutions, strengthening their hold of dominance over a one-tier system of citizenship. What I realized after numerous discussions about the future and current situation of Qatar was the power consolidation function of institutions, the protection of rights and entitlements due true Qatari citizens. Education City and the Qatar schooling system, history museums and nationalism initiatives (mainly by Sheikh Mozah), wealth and technology of Qatar Gas and research on the natural gas reserves, etc. Practically all institutions in Doha, from the political to the economic, exist to ensure the present and future stability of Al-Thani/Qatari control of a country overrun by expatriate workers. As Fromherz’s book Qatar: A Modern History points out, even culture is being practically ‘created’ to prove the historical basis for the ruling class’ rights to rule, as well as foster pride in a country that has only modernized (or even become something resembling a city) in the last fifty years. Institutions in Qatar only serve to protect the relatively few members of the ruling class.
The institutional situation in Cairo is quite different, and not only due to the unrest and instability caused by the Arab Spring. Although we were only able to stay in Egypt for a couple of weeks, it was an incredibly exciting and enlightening time to be there as we witnessed the Egyptian people attempting to take over a system completely controlled by the military. Although some were hopeful at first, that is a couple weeks before the elections, many people I talked to seemed to be disenchanted with the whole situation after 2 weeks as they realized the army would not give up power to the Egyptians. The elections were lengthened and/or delayed time and time again, and rights and privileges of the presidency were taken or manipulated by the military to consolidate their power in the future government. A common theme has been seen time and time again, the sad truth that institutions in Egypt are still hindering the rights of their citizens. In fact, these institutions of a faltering government, pitiful education system, and corrupt power-hungry army are only serving to constrain the individual Egyptians themselves. In Qatar, institutions focus on protecting the few, but in Egypt they oppress the many. Even after overthrowing a dictator and utterly corrupt rulers, the system of institutional domination has yet to be completely abolished (and in some cases – i.e. the army – the control appears all the more complete and strengthened). In Cairo, there are two tiers of citizenship: the upper class wealthier Egyptians, and all the rest of the ‘second class’ citizens. This is showcased in the novel Final Exit, a story that follows a typical Egyptian family’s struggle with making ends meet. The main character is even forced to leave for Saudi Arabia (having to forge legal documents to do so due to the corrupt system) to find sustainable work to support his family, a phenomena all too common. These ‘second class’ citizens make up most of the population of Egypt, and though they are not quite treated like expatriates, Egyptians often become expats to get a reasonable sum to sustain the livelihood of a growing family.
Another aspect of institutions that is surprising different in Qatar when compared to Egypt is the formal vs. informal. Formal institutions are the governmental, official constructions similar to those previously mentioned such as the office of education or the military. Informal institutions, on the other hand, are from the ground up – religious movements and institutes, demonstrations and loose political organizations often unrecognized (such as the Tahrir square gatherings or websites/meeting places for expat workers). In Cairo, such informal organizations are often a source of strength to bolster the rights of individuals. Religion is not a means of institutionalized control or oppression, and often Christians and Muslims work together in relatively genial coexistence and mutual respect. One Muslim interviewee I talked with even said that engaging in differences between himself and his Coptic friends has actually helped them create an organization of Muslims and Christians that supports Morsi (the Muslim Brotherhood candidate). These informal institutions of civil society in Egypt support the masses of ‘second class’ citizens to reclaim their rights rather than apathetically accept a corrupt system of liars and manipulators.
In Qatar, informal institutions for the most part still support an elitist government of ruling class Qatari citizens. Grass roots movements, historical rebirths/re-emerging interests, unofficial organizations, etc. often promote a façade of culture and national pride to disguise the country’s utter lack of historical depth. Places like Souq Al Waquif look old, but were built recently with rich tourists in mind. Museums showcase ‘Qatari’ culture and cultural centers hold events to foster Qatari pride, but many traditions and customs are ‘borrowed’ from other cultures and regions of the world due to a lack of truly Qatari food, music, clothing, etc. The generation gap in Doha also plays a role, the older generation’s fear of anomie causing them to constantly reemphasize the importance of camel races, pearl diving, or hawk hunting.
After analyzing the institutions of Qatar and Cairo, and conducting 5 interviews in each country, I know there are many in both countries who have very little sense of longing or belonging to their nations. Citizenship may be taken for granted in America, but it is a constant reminder power relations to both Qatari’s and Egyptians. In Qatar, simply possessing citizenship gives authority, wealth, and prestige to the owner. In Egypt, the two-tier system of citizenship creates separation of classes between the rich ‘true’ citizens and the ‘lesser’ worker citizens. The question I find myself asking is what hope is there for lesser or non citizens in either country? My friend Abdullah wants to travel to Qatar to find a job because Egypt has forsaken him, but he cannot leave do to his ‘lesser’ rights as a second tier citizen. Expats I talked to in Qatar would give anything to become citizens, but they know they pray for the impossible. In the end, I can only think that both systems need to change not only on an institutional level, but also from the ground up. Expats should have more rights and Egyptians should be given an organized system and government that is for the citizens, not controlled by the army. How this change will occur, I can only guess. But, it may already be happening as Qatari citizens of the elite families hope for more expatriate rights and people protests against the institutional regime in Cairo. Change is gradual, and however depressing the situations may seem in Qatar and Cairo, there is always the hope that these slow slight adjustments will finally come to fruition. As people in both cultures would say it: In Sha Allah.