Egypt’s doctors take on Mubarak

Egypt’s doctors take on Mubarak

Egypt”s longstanding president, Hosni Mubarak, faces a new challenge to his authority from a wave of strikes and signs of middle-class discontent, including a campaign group led by a woman doctor, Mona Mina.

She was hard to miss. A tiny, feisty woman – no hijab to cover her short brown hair – holding a placard above her head.

Dressed in a stylish white jacket and sensible trousers. A woman, surrounded by men on the steps of the doctors” union building in downtown Cairo.

Dr Mona Mina is the driving force behind an organisation called Doctors Without Rights.

The signs she and her colleagues are carrying say: “Two-hundred-and-thirty pounds a month is not enough to feed our families.”

The average wage of a doctor, 230 Egyptian pounds, works out at less than £25 ($50) a month.

Food costs are soaring across Egypt. The price of chicken has gone up by 40% in three months, and heating, electricity and transportation costs have more than doubled in the last year. It is not just the poor who are suffering.

Police beatings

Increasingly, the middle classes are being pulled into poverty. And as protests grow, the rumbles of discontent are starting to worry the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

But you would be hard pressed to see much concern on the faces of the police and the undercover agents, watching this stand-in from the foot of the steps of the doctors” syndicate.

They look bored in their wraparound sunglasses, relaying information on mobile phones and walkie talkies.

But I have seen them in other situations – ruthlessly and efficiently wading into the ranks of pro-democracy activists, batons at the ready.

Protesters have learned not to resist arrest, so as to avoid being beaten on the streets. The beatings, they say, are quite bad enough once the police get you to the station.

When I ask Dr Mina if she is worried about the police presence, she bursts into laughter. “No, no,” she says, flashing a mesmerising smile at me. “I see them so often they are like friends.”

Political dissent

In the more than 25 years that Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt, the government has become very good at controlling political dissent.

The secular political parties are divided and scattered. Ayman Noor who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election remains in jail and in ill-health, his Ghad party splintered by in-fighting.

The only viable opposition voice, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, has seen scores of its members arrested and jailed in the past few weeks, ahead of local elections in April.

What the government has been less successful in dealing with, is a wave of industrial action. Three weeks ago, the government was caught by surprise, when 27,000 textile workers went on strike.

Previously the tobacco industry had seen industrial unrest.

Civil servants have started to organise. But it is the doctors – middle class, highly respected but poorly paid – who have caught the mood of the country with their audacious proposal for a strike.

Strike call

Mona Mina had called for a two-hour stoppage, to take place on 15 March, in every government hospital in the country. Only emergency doctors were to stay on the job.

It would have been a dramatic and provocative challenge to the Mubarak regime.

As the campaign gathered steam, the government became worried. Last week the prime minister declared strikes in essential services in the public sector to be illegal.

While I am talking to her on the steps of the doctors” syndicate building, Mona Mina has found out that the leadership of the syndicate, which had previously supported the strike call, has very abruptly turned against her.

Doctors without Rights has been forced to back down.

An inspirational woman

After the stand-in ends, I ask her: “So, has the government won?”

She looks at me as if I have just said something quite silly, shakes her head defiantly and says: “Look. They won the battle. The war goes on. We are not giving up.”

One of the curiosities of the doctors” struggle is that it is being led not only by a woman but by a Coptic Christian.

I ask her whether, in this majority Muslim country, that has caused her any problems, but a young Muslim doctor in a headscarf cuts in.

“I am a Muslim from Suez. I came to Cairo today to support her. Dr Mina is speaking for all of us. Christian, Muslim, men and women,” she says.

“I have to tell you that, as a woman, she inspires me. It took a woman to get us all going.”

When she hears that, Mona Mina laughs again with sheer pleasure.

Then, a tap on her shoulder, she apologises and says she has to go. The next move of Doctors Without Rights will be a sit-in. An anxious group of men doctors is hovering around us.

They are waiting for Dr Mona to sort things out.