Syndicated battlefield

The Doctors Syndicate is witnessing heightened tensions and polarization ahead of their nationwide mid-term elections scheduled for Friday, December 13. A general assembly convened one week before on December 6, reflecting numerous divisions and disagreements among the Muslim Brotherhood’s bloc, secular opponents and independents — including a divided call for a nationwide doctors strike to commence on January 1.

The general assembly meeting was a noisy and heated event with doctors of different blocs and tendencies shouting back and forth in the densely packed conference hall at the Doctors Syndicate headquarters in Cairo. Disagreements and angry exchanges centered around the election dates, representatives, salary scales and the Brotherhood-led calls to launch a strike next month for the release of imprisoned doctors.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s bloc, Doctors for Egypt, has announced that it will participate in the syndicate’s upcoming elections. Simultaneously, this bloc is leading the call for a doctors strike, while other blocs and coalitions within the syndicate — especially the independent group Doctors Without Rights — have criticized the Brotherhood’s apparently contradictory stance regarding strikes.

The Brotherhood’s bloc, which controls around 50 percent of syndicate board seats nationwide, rejected and denounced a string of doctors strikes during the period of the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament and Mohamed Morsi’s presidency.

Partial and general strikes were launched in 2011-2013, spearheaded by Doctors Without Rights demanding health care reform and improved working conditions and salaries. They also called for increased security in hospitals to protect doctors and medical staff from repeated assaults in which disgruntled patients and their families targeted hospitals.

Having lost the Parliament and then the presidency, the Brotherhood appears adamant to hold onto their last stronghold — Egypt’s professional syndicates (especially those of doctors, dentists, veterinarians, engineers and lawyers).

Dozens of physicians from the Brotherhood and their National Alliance to Support Legitimacy have been arrested in the recent crackdown.

The Brotherhood and their allies formed the Federation of Professional Syndicates in order to ensure their hold on these professional associations. The federation has actively sought the release of imprisoned Brotherhood-affiliated doctors.

According to Brotherhood sympathizer and doctor Shereen Barakat, some 100 members of the Doctors For Egypt bloc have been arrested and are “languishing in prison, including 12 syndicate board members.”

Posters hanging on the walls of the Doctors Syndicate headquarters in Cairo read: “Freedom for Gamal Abdel Salam, Secretary General of Egypt’s Doctors Syndicate.”

Barakat says they are planning an “escalatory strike starting from January 1 until all imprisoned doctors are released.”

“We’ve had numerous doctors strikes and calls for strikes led by Doctors Without Rights in the recent past over assaults on doctors from angry patients. Yet, when the security apparatus assaults and arrests doctors we find them silent,” she says.

Barakat claims that “around 70 percent of Doctors Without Rights appear to be opposing our call for a partial strike at the beginning of next year.”

However, Amr al-Shora from the Doctors Without Rights espouses views quite different from the double standards that Barakat attributes to the bloc. “I openly oppose the mass arrests and collective-roundups of Brotherhood members,” he says. “Many of them are facing trumped-up charges and baseless charges. Most have not been involved in acts of violence.”

According to Shora, many Brotherhood-affiliated doctors were arrested while serving in field hospitals near Rabea al-Adaweya Mosque and Nahda Square — sites of sit-ins calling for the reinstatement of protest sites for Morsi-supporters. Meanwhile many other Brotherhood and Islamist doctors have been arrested from their homes or at security checkpoints.

Shora adds, “Since the coup of July 3, the state has been attempting to purge the syndicate and Health Ministry of Brotherhood influence, by replacing them with feloul,” referring to figures of the Mubarak regime.

“Yet when they were in office, the Brotherhood sought to consolidate syndicate and executive authorities, solely to serve the interests of the Brotherhood and Morsi’s rule,” Shora says.

Following Friday’s general assembly meeting, Ahmed Shawqi, a non-affiliated physician, comments, “This is the worst general assembly I’ve attended in 20 years. The Brotherhood doctors are hypocrites who are seeking to politicize the affairs of our syndicate. This syndicate is supposed to defend the professional rights of Egyptian doctors, yet the Brotherhood is seeking to transform it into a political association with the sole purpose of protecting their political interests.”

“These are blatantly double standards,” Shawqi adds. “They are calling for a strike now that they’ve lost political power, but they condemned our strikes when they were in office.”

Shawqi is disappointed after the general assembly: “I had hoped that this general assembly might focus and unite around pressing professional issues, such as a unified incremental pay scale for doctors, bonuses and promotions, improved working conditions, and a larger health budget. Instead it became a forum for narrow-minded party politics.”

Nonetheless, there appeared to be some common ground among the different blocs, groupings and tendencies within the syndicate regarding incremental pay scales and improved working conditions and medical standards.

According to Ismail Abdel Aziz of the Doctors For Egypt bloc, “I’ve been working as a doctor in public hospitals for the past 20 years now and my total salary is a mere LE950 per month. This is an unrealistically low income, even for someone who does not have a family to support.”

Doctors Without Rights raised similar concerns regarding the low salaries that physicians are paid in public hospitals and the Health Ministry. Since 2011, this bloc has sought to increase the government’s national health expenditures to 15 percent of the budget from its allotted 5 percent.

Khairy Abdel Dayyem, chairperson of the Doctors Syndicate and member of the Doctors for Egypt bloc, declined to answer questions pertaining to arrests of syndicate board members, national healthcare expenditures, doctors’ salaries or the upcoming elections.

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