Covering current events in Egypt has numerous occupational hazards but I hadn’t imagined that being sat on by a middle-aged doctor was one of them.
The Doctors’ Syndicate extraordinary general assembly held yesterday changed that.
I arrived shortly after it was scheduled to start. The Syndicate was – as usual during its general assemblies – hemorrhaging doctors, and hundreds of them had spilled out on the street, where they had no clue what was going on inside.
Inserting myself in the mass of humanity that had congregated around a side entrance, I then fought my way through to the front. During the almost half an hour it took me to reach the front I wondered why the Syndicate had not bothered to book a bigger function hall for this meeting, as had been agreed during the last general assembly.
The revolution hasn’t yet translated into improved wages and conditions for doctors, although it has rid them of Hamdy El-Sayyed. The avuncular Essam El-Erian chaired this meeting, as he had the last.
Health rights activist Mohamed Hassan Khalil told the meeting that a delegation from the Syndicate met Essam Sharaf and relayed to him four grievances. Firstly, Khalil said, they told him that 70% of accident and emergency departments in Cairo are closed because of a lack of security and frequent attacks by armed individuals. The delegation was apparently promised a permanent police presence in all hospitals immediately. Doctors roared that this promise has not been fulfilled.
In addition to demanding a minimum wage, doctors are calling for a wage ceiling to be imposed because according to Khalil, some senior officials “earn more than Obama”.
The delegation called for increased health spending and the removal of current health minister Ashraf Hatem, which elicited a huge cheer from doctors, as did the call for strike action on May 10.
Given the number of times that strike action has been discussed in the Syndicate it is remarkable that some doctors seem unclear about its scope and effects. Speakers advocating the strike stressed that it won’t extend to A&E, and that operations that cannot be postponed will be performed on the day of the action.
Mona Mina told doctors who don’t want to strike that they can take the day off as leave. Khalil said that doctors in one hospital (can’t remember which) launched strike action a while back and that “their grievances were addressed within two hours”.
Still, a sullen little bunch of doctors sat in one corner with their arms crossed, grim-faced, as other doctors chanted strike! Strike!
(In fact at one of the many points during the meeting when the speaker on stage was inaudible the people standing next to me asked each other what had been said. Nobody had heard, but in front of us the miserable bunch were all on their feet shouting AYWAN AYWAN [YES YES].
“As long as they’re saying yes I’ll say no, even if I don’t know what about,” the man next to me said dryly.)
The vote was carried (or at least I thought so) and then activist doctor Ahmed Atef up the ante and proposed that an open-ended strike begin on May 17 if the authorities fail to respond to the May 10 strike. Doctors also voted in favour of disciplinary action being taken against strikebreaking colleagues.
The response was mostly enthusiastic, other than from members of the miserable corner. It was at this point – about three hours into the general assembly – that El-Erian suddenly and for the first time became concerned with the doctors outside the Syndicate building.
It was decided that strike action should be decided on through a paper ballot rather than a show of hands, and doctors we all twiddled thumbs for half an hour while two thousand voting papers were photocopied.
When the voting papers eventually appeared there were three questions on them:
- Do you agree with a strike on May 10
- Do you agree that strikebreaking colleagues should be punished
- Do you agree with an open strike beginning on May 17
Doctors seemed bemused by all this. It was clear that in the chaos not all doctors would receive a copy of the voting paper, and in any case most doctors seemed under the impression that a majority had already voted in favour of the three points they were being asked about.
El-Erian may have genuinely wanted to ensure that all Syndicate members were balloted, but it felt like me like obfuscation in the face of overwhelming enthusiasm for strike action. This impression was reinforced when El-Erian suggested to the general assembly that a paper ballot could be avoided if they agreed to one-day strike action on May 10 and forgot about the open strike on May 17.
By this point doctors were ripping up the voting papers and throwing them in the air while again chanting strike, strike. One doctor held up a sign saying, “we’re sick of fraud, we don’t want ballot boxes”. El-Erian changed tack and announced that Mona Mina, accompanied by a couple of Syndicate representatives would poll the doctors outside the Syndicate about their thoughts on the strike. She returned later and said that while 5 doctors objected to strike action, the number of hands raised in favour was uncountable.
There had been a throng of people on the stage (completely obscuring speakers) throughout the general assembly but this number surged about four hours into the meeting. While I watched my neighbour sketch out a makeshift sign I was suddenly aware of a commotion behind me. The physicians were fighting!
Whipping out my video camera I didn’t see the bottom that, like Jaws, was stealthily making its way towards me, and I was arsed off stage before the arse itself followed and it and its owner fell on top of me.
I escaped with a bruised leg and in any case if one must sustain physical injuries while one is working let one do so in a hall heaving with doctors is what I always say.
After this incident of crazy outrageous nonsense someone intoned the call to prayer into the mic and everyone calmed down for as long as it took to say it.
There was a proposal that incumbent members of the Syndicate board be barred from standing for election in September (the speaker making explicit reference to El-Erian). People chanted, “why is the Muslim Brotherhood refusing strike action? Are they not doctors?”
Five hours after the meeting began El-Erian announced that doctors had voted for strike action on May 10 with the possibility of further action of May 17 if their demands aren’t met. This won’t be the first time that doctors have voted for a strike (they did so in 2008 but the Syndicate unilaterally quashed that decision on the pretext that they were unsure of the legality of industrial action).
It will be interesting to see what both El-Erian et al and the government do in the next eight days. If the strike goes ahead it will be even more interesting to see how the army reacts.