The emperor’s new clothes

When I arrived (late) at the Doctors’ Syndicate general assembly on Friday it was in uproar.

Syndicate head Dr Hamdy El-Sayyed was conspicuously and predictably absent from the podium. After losing his seat in the 2010 parliamentary elections (a seat he held for three parliamentary terms) El-Sayyed was then subjected to the indignity of being booted out of his Syndicate headquarters office by doctors demanding that he step down.

El-Sayyed has been head of the Syndicate for four successive terms. Elections haven’t been held since the early 1990s. In 1995 amendments to the law resulted in the boards of several Syndicates including the Doctors’ Syndicate being “frozen”. The amendments were held unconstitutional in January of this year and Doctors Without Rights (DWR) members and others are now pushing for elections.

In the meantime doctors had over a decade of that spectral man staring out unblinkingly from behind his glasses and blocking any genuine attempt to improve doctors’ wages and conditions where it meant a confrontation with the National Democratic Party, of which he is a member.

In its basest form this took the form of legalistic obfuscation and subterfuge, as in March 2008 when doctors voted overwhelmingly for symbolic strike action in a heated general assembly. The vote was carried (although Syndicate treasurer Essam El-Erian ignored demands that the strike be held on April 6 to coincide with calls for national protests).

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif responded by indirectly threatening doctors in media statements in which he said, “Many people are perhaps unaware of the fact that public sector employees – in particular doctors – are prohibited from striking. Those who wish to express themselves have many alternative methods to stopping work”.

(But those were the bad old days. The idea of the government proscribing the legitimate right to industrial action in glorious post-revolution Egypt is of course unthinkable. Onwards!)

El-Sayyed announced some weeks after this that the Syndicate was “studying” the legality of strike action. The strike never happened of course, but DWR – spearheaded by the indefatigable Mona Mina – kept up the pressure. It was incredibly gratifying to walk into the Doctors’ Syndicate hall on Friday and find that three members – Mona Mina, Abdel-Geleel Mostafa and Mohamed Hassan Khalil – were sitting on the podium.

What was less gratifying was an encounter with a Salafi-type idiot by the podium. The hall was packed, and there was a gaggle of journalists and doctors in front of the elevated stage. While I was videoing something a voice behind me said, “excuse me, excuse me step back please”.

I turned around. A young man sporting his best effort at a beard was standing there with his hands raised at shoulder level in an effort to avoid contact with any particle of my existence.

“Don’t touch me,” he said, with a nauseating smile.

I exploded of course. What he didn’t seem to understand was that I hadn’t realised that the furthest edges of my coat were in vague contact with his person, thereby reducing his purity levels to the dangerously low category. Believe it or not I do not make a habit of rubbing myself up against strange men in public like a cat (although this might change if I am ever alone in the same room as a certain Al Jazeera English correspondent) particularly when their facial hair resembles the aftermath of a massacre of spiders.

I then directed my impure eyes back to the podium where El-Erian was making a re-appearance on the podium. El-Erian had been absent when I arrived. A video with unclear sound shows him interrupting Mona Mina followed by chants of “get out” and El-Erian taking his leave. A doctor told me that he had objected to the way he had been spoken to.

The petulant exit-left was a favourite move of El-Sayyed’s, too. Syndicate meetings would get a lot more done if their figureheads were less precious about the way people address them.

A break for the Hippocratic Oath

El-Erian is a perennially cheerful looking, jolly man and the happy smile is even more remarkable given the years of imprisonment and general oppression he has had to endure at the hands of the regime as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Alas I know very little about the Muslim Brotherhood and knew even less the first time I attended a Doctors’ Syndicate general assembly in 2008 and encountered El-Erian “in the flesh” (N.B this is a figure of fucking speech, Spider Beard Man). I remember thinking that he gave off NDP vibes in his capacity as Syndicate treasurer, and that he and El-Sayyed made a great team.

As he did in the 2008 general assembly, El-Erian opposed a motion that had majority backing. This time doctors were demanding that El-Sayyed should not be allowed to talk to the media in the name of the Syndicate because, according to doctors, he doesn’t and has never represented them faithfully or done anything to improve their conditions.

Even as doctors chanted “we don’t want him” and “doctors want the Syndicate head to stop” and “down with Hamdy El-Sayyed” El-Erian remained resolute.

(One DWR activist doctor called on El-Sayyed to step down as a “humanitarian” gesture. “You are the age of my grandfather and forcing us to stand against you is extremely difficult and embarrassing”. There is too much respect for the senescent in public life. Stops shit getting done).

Even I, with my primary school knowledge of the MB, can tell you that the ruling regime – MB dynamic made El-Erian’s position as a member of the Doctors’ Syndicate board  a bit difficult. It certainly hasn’t worked to the advantage of doctors’ campaign for better wages.

A doctor who spoke during the general assembly told El-Erian that while he (he being El-Erian) is an “important political figure” he shouldn’t be on the Syndicate board because the Syndicate should be politics free (I think what he meant is that El-Erian is too high profile to be effective. Either that or he was just politely telling him to eff off).

Some good things came out of the meeting, at the top of which is the formation of a committee of board and non-board members (including DWR activists) who will negotiate with the Ministry of Health and decide what the Syndicate’s next steps will be. Another important topic raised was whether the Syndicate should call for the removal of health minister Ashraf Hatem on the grounds that he is a member of the NDP’s policies committee.

I can’t understand why the NDP hasn’t been banned and its members rounded up and made to live in a hall of the Nasr City Conference Centre while “Ekhtarnaah” [We Chose Him] plays on repeat, for 10 years. Banning the NDP won’t dismantle its extensive and insidious network, but at least it will strip it of legitimacy. And make me happy.

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