In his opening speech to the ceremony marking Doctors” Day, celebrated on 18 March every year, Hamdi El-Sayed, chairman of the Doctors Syndicate, noted that, “this year the day is being celebrated under unusual circumstances.” Indeed it is.
Last week”s decision by the syndicate”s council to suspend the nation- wide strike planned for 15 March has triggered much debate and growing tensions among doctors. The limited strike was supposed to take place for two hours in public hospitals across the country, excluding emergency and intensive care units. This was agreed at the emergency general meeting (EGM) called last month in protest at the Health Ministry”s draft bill to create a “special cadre of medical doctors”. The EGM unanimously rejected the government”s draft which doctors insist fails to address the demeaning conditions they have endured for decades.
Ahmed Ali, a young doctor who graduated three years ago, told Al-Ahram Weekly that his salary last month was LE225 (less than $50). “Can you believe that this was my overall salary? What incentives are they [the Ministry of Health] talking about? Incentives are presumably there, but do we really get a salary that is even close to realistic?”
State-employed doctors receive basic salaries supplemented by additional payments that take into account night shifts, postgraduate qualifications, additional administrative duties and performance assessments by the administration. These supplements remain discretionary, at the mercy of ministerial decrees, available resources and a host of bureaucratic complexities.
The strike decision was subsequently suspended by the council, that instead called on doctors to stage a standing protest at the syndicate”s headquarters and branches around the country. Abdel-Fattah Rizk, a member of the syndicate”s council, says the decision came in reaction to a letter from the government advising the syndicate that any strike by physicians would be a violation of prime ministerial decree No. 1158 for the year 2003, which prohibits strikes in vital strategic facilities.
“The decision was taken to protect doctors and to avoid any infringement of legal or administrative rules. We are currently seeking clarification from the syndicate”s own legal advisors,” he told the Weekly.
Essam El-Erian, syndicate treasurer and a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, says the letter from the prime minister”s office has caused a great deal of confusion. “Any imprudent move might see the syndicate entering into a legal battle with the government which will distract us from the primary aim of improving wages and conditions.”
Ahmed Abu Bakr, a state-employed physician and a member of the Doctors without Rights group, disagrees. “Prohibiting our right to pursue our demands by withholding labour is not only illegal but unconstitutional. Where the law is not respected, and when it is the government that is the first to practise such disrespect, rights can only be secured by using every available kind of pressure to attract the attention of decision-makers,” he said.
Following the council”s decision to abandon the strike, Doctors without Rights embarked on a week of protest including a sit-in at the syndicate”s headquarters, which began on 15 March, and a stand up protest on the syndicate”s steps between 9-11am, the same time as the planned strike. The syndicate”s own stand up protest was scheduled to begin at 1pm.
The two protests went ahead amid intense security around the syndicate”s Qasr Al-Aini Street headquarters, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Neither was attended by syndicate council members.
Mona Mina, of Doctors without Rights, told the Weekly that she did not understand “how they [Council members] could fail to attend a protest they called for”. Syndicate chairman El-Sayed said the non-appearance was to avoid any friction that might have occurred due to the difference in views.
“Never have we resorted to inappropriate actions or deeds. While on the staircase, we kept on chanting slogans calling for the support of the council and the chair but to no avail,” said Mina.
In most governorates, standing protests took place at local union branches, though in Gharbiya in the Nile Delta doctors at Al-Mehalla and Al-Mehalla Al-Kobra hospitals, and at El-Menshawi Hospital in Tanta, took to the hospital yards, leaving one doctor to run each clinic. They were joined by nurses and auxiliary workers in a demonstration of solidarity.
But what if the general meeting of 21 March insists the strike go ahead before the syndicate council has had time to analyse the legal advice it receives? El-Erian argues that the general meeting is not mandated to take any action that might lead to a legal breach.
Despite the emergence of difference within the doctors” ranks, Rizk insists that they are superficial. “There is clear consensus that there is no alternative to a comprehensive wages cadre. This demand will never be given up.”
Mina told the Weekly that Doctors without Rights hope only that their efforts will strengthen the syndicate”s case as it pushes for better wages and conditions. She stresses that they are not seeking any confrontation with the union. “The opposite is true, we believe in bridging any gaps that might exist. Our main battle is to form a unified front of doctors in their struggle for a comprehensive and fair wages cadre. This is a battle that calls for the joining all forces.”
The Doctors” Syndicate was established in 1940, and after the Bar Association is Egypt”s oldest professional union. It has 170,000 members, more than 70,000 of which are employed by the state. A majority of the current council, who came to power in 1992, are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the law stipulates that the council members serve only a four-year term, elections have been suspended since the 1992 vote.