On 8 November 2011, I wrote for Ahram Online about Dr Mona Mina winning a seat on the Doctors' Syndicate board. Now I write as the syndicate is expecting an emergency general assembly meeting 7 February 2014 about strikes demanding better pay and working conditions.
Mona Mina is the general-secretary of the syndicate and is supported by members of the Independence Current that in mid-December overturned almost a quarter century of dominance by the Muslim Brotherhood and members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP).
At the syndicate's office, which I visited last week, a general mood of crisis loomed. At the entrance, fresh graduates were holding tense discussions during a sit-in against what they describe as the health ministry's failure to carry out its promises. They discussed corruption and favouritism when posting interns. Daily problems, coupled with the inherited troubles of tens of thousands of doctors and the future of millions of poor and middle income Egyptians, has left the new leadership besieged.
A young doctor, a 2006 graduate, enters the general secretariat office. He works at a health ministry hospital and his salary does not exceed LE1,200 ($172). In the tone of a sincere friend, he reproached the general syndicate board for not being firm enough regarding the strike, arguing that Independence Current board members had not lived up to their promises or the heritage of Doctors Without Rights, a grouping that had been calling for a strike since February 2008.
Listening to Cairo syndicate board member Ahmed Bakr, I realised the new board had become stuck. On the one hand, young doctors were very enthusiastic to escalate the strike, starting the date of the 7 November emergency meeting. On the other, there are the Muslim Brotherhood doctors and its syndicate leading members, who recently lost the elections, working tactically to embarrass the new board.
The Brotherhood have simply moved from the role of strike breakers, which they had been upholding for years, to the role of inciters of escalation only with the aim of getting the new board involved in a potentially failed strike with circumstances not being suitable and with Brotherhood members in practice working against it. They have already done that in Fayoum and Menoufiya, where they still control the syndicate, during the partial strike held between 1 and 8 January.
And as the Brotherhood do that, they also go on to claim that had they not been removed from power and had the Shura Council (upper house of parliament) not been dissolved after the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, who hails from their ranks, a law bettering working conditions for doctors would have been already passed.
However, looking at the decisions of the Shura Council committee made responsible in June 2013 for formulating the doctors’ demands, the committee’s report recognised that bettering the pay of those working in the health sector means developing the whole health system and decreasing the burdens of paying for health services on the Egyptian citizen. It does underline how low the pay of health workers is, using statements of former syndicate head Hamdy El-Sayed that 80 percent of Egyptian doctors are under the poverty line. Yet the tables accompanying the report do not reflect the hopes of doctors and health workers but ignore the proposal of the Union of Medical Syndicates submitted to parliament on 1 May 2012.
Meanwhile, the current government remains the force exerting the most pressure on the new syndicate board. The syndicate board had to suspend negotiations with the health ministry on 17 January 2014 simply because the government insists on ignoring the doctors' legitimate demands. Not only that, but the government has also attempted to channel negotiations towards acceptance of a new “bonus system” as a solution that will not touch the basic salary (that doctors have been demanding increase). What is more dangerous is that the government refuses to provide the syndicate the database of salaries, which would allow investigations into whether income redistribution in the health sector and ending corruption are enough to provide a just increase in pay.
The Independence Current list and a large sector of young doctors believe the current government is following in the footsteps of previous governments in ignoring doctors' demands and in its lack of transparency.
If you consider the success of the Independence Current list and its different components (Doctors without Rights, Doctors for the Independence of Universities, Tahrir Doctors, and other independents) in gaining the majority of the syndicate's general board seats and the two main governorate branches (Cairo and Alexandria), in addition to half the seats of all the syndicate’s governorate branches, a ray of hope for change to follow the January 25 Revolution, it is not to any sane person’s benefit to try to bring about the failure of the syndicate’s new board and the Independence Current list.
Neither is there is benefit in continuing to deny doctors’ rights, and by extension patient rights to decent, humane and free healthcare. There is no benefit in losing more of the country’s qualified professionals abroad at a time we are most in need of their efforts at home.
Accordingly, it is illogical as well as unfair to attack doctors that seek their rights and the rights of patients, using against them counter-revolutionary slogans and defending mismanagement and corruption under the banner “No to self-serving demands.”
It is enough that these doctors, who are the educational elite considering they needed to obtain the highest grades during high school, and considering the number of years they spend at university, are paid embarrassingly low in comparison to other professions in society whose members graduated with a bare minimum.
Seriously, it has become pressing to help the new Doctors' Syndicate board and with that help develop the syndicate and civil society as whole. The latter will not happen without saving our doctors, and by that saving patients too.