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One of the striking features that distinguishes the Arab World is that – contrary to what is supposed to happen – the authorities or governing bodies are more willing and desirous of taking steps towards modernization with regards to social issues, while the genuine [social] powers or pressure groups in society are against taking such steps. In most cases these groups make claims that this government or that is bowing to Western pressure or is seeking to polish its image. In most cases, such confrontations end with the government or the concerned authority retreating and choosing to take the safe path rather than initiating direct confrontation. This results in a lack of development or modernization, especially with regards to women.

An example of this is the battle to appoint female judges to the Egyptian State Council, which is a judicial body that settles administrative disputes. This was taken to the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court; this case saw the governmental side trying to push through female judges’ acceptance to the council, with the majority of council judges being against this decision. This can be seen in that an overwhelming majority of 334 of the council’s 380 member General Assembly voted against this during a meeting held a few weeks ago.

Amidst the pretexts provided by those objecting to the decision, and which seemed like a national battle against an invasion [by women], included many arguments that disparaged women’s capabilities. It is strange and unbelievable that such arguments can be put forth today in the 21st century. Without going into details, those who made such arguments need to reflect on the implications of this, especially if such arguments are made by the [social] elites, or reflect a strong current or trend in society.

A closer examination of the implications of this is required because there is a genuine need to understand this phenomenon and how to resolve it, and also because a government cannot ignore the way that that the public, the electorate, and the social elites think. This is because – rule – in the end is a social contract between the government and the people, and this does not exempt the government from the responsibility of finding a way to lead society towards modernization and to correct social misconceptions, even if such misconceptions represent a public trend. The aim of this is to catch up with the rest of the world otherwise the only alternative is [social] breakdown and following the path of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Any decisions or laws, no matter how strong, are nothing more than decoration in the absence of public opinion engaging with it, and can soon be reversed. An example of this is the issue of women running for elections and standing for parliament, this is something that takes place in the Arab world only through a quota system with a number of parliamentary seats being designated specifically for female candidates.

This raises the question of the role of Arab governments in educating and enlightening the public, including shaping and mobilizing public opinion to support and understand the need for modernization. Of course the best way to do this is to modernize education, as there can be no progress without good education. This is the source of the current problem with regards to many outdated ideas that are enthusiastically promoted by their advocates.

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's deputy editor-in-chief. He is based in London.

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