Tens of thousands of doctors, pharmacists and dentists launched an open-ended strike on Saturday, an escalation of unprecedented industrial action by workers and professional staff in Egypt.
Outside the headquarters of the Cabinet, dozens of sacked employees protested.
Medical professionals nationwide have been on a partial strike for weeks while workers have occupied the headquarters of the state-controlled trade union federation for a month, demanding the re-operation of stalled factories and the implementation of court verdicts issued in 2011 for the renationalization of several privatized companies.
Since the start of the year, Egypt has witnessed a massive wave of strikes and industrial action, which are believed to have brought the tenure of former Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi and his cabinet to an abrupt end in late February.
Egypt’s new Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb appointed Nahed al-Ashry as Minister of Manpower, a controversial figure which spurred the concern of labor activists and independent trade union organizers. She has been quoted in local media as saying that she plans to bring an end to strikes and protests, and it is for her experience in dispute resolution that she was appointed.
Since May 2011, the Doctors Syndicate has launched a string of partial strikes demanding an increase in the healthcare expenditure of the state budget to 15 percent from the current 3.5 percent.
In these three years, doctors have also been demanding improved services at public hospitals, safer working conditions, higher salaries, an incremental pay-raise scale and adequate compensation for infectious illnesses, to name a few.
The General Assembly of the Doctors Syndicate decided to resume its strike action at the beginning of this year and, on Saturday, thousands of dentists and pharmacists joined.
Members of the Veterinarians Syndicate launched an open sit-in at the headquarters of the Federation of Medical Professions located in downtown Cairo.
The Doctors’ Joint Strike Committee claimed that around 80 percent of the country’s physicians, dentists and pharmacists — around 64,000 medical professionals — participated in the first day of the open strike, which is expected to continue in public hospitals and the Health Ministry’s medical facilities until the end of the month.
On March 28, doctors are to convene for a general assembly meeting and decide on further action. Countless medical professionals have threatened to resign if their demands continue to go unmet.
The Nurses Syndicate has denounced the open strike while the Healthy Ministry downplayed the number of medical professionals taking part to 33 percent.
In a Saturday press conference, the newly appointed Minister of Health Adel al-Adawi said that while “partial strikes are a constitutional right of doctors…[they] must not negatively affect patients’ rights or deny them treatment.”
On his part, Mohamed Fattouh, a member of the Doctors’ Joint Strike Committee, said that the “partial strikes have never been geared towards denying patients treatment.”
Emergency rooms, intensive care units, nurseries, dialysis machines, and all forms of urgent medical treatment and surgeries are not affected by the open-ended partial strike, he explained.
He accused military personnel of threatening striking doctors in South Sinai Governorate to resume all non-essential medical services or face arrest.
In a televised address to the army’s fresh medical graduates on Thursday, Defense Minister Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi praised Egypt’s doctors and medical staff as being the country’s best and brightest minds. He added, however, that due to dire economic conditions, doctors’ demands for increasing the state’s medical expenditure could not be met at the moment.
In a speech loaded with nationalistic rhetoric, Sisi repeatedly asked doctors to selflessly postpone their demands while working for the general wellbeing of Egyptians.
A day later, the Doctors’ Joint Strike Committee responded to Sisi in a written statement, citing Egypt’s place as the “world’s leader in Hepatitis C infections,” adding that “the state does not care about doctors’ rights or the rights of poor patients. It does not care about public hospitals or those within them.”
The committee called on Sisi to open up the military’s medical facilities for public use. These facilities are generally equipped with more advanced equipment and provide a relatively better standard of healthcare than public hospitals.
Workers battle on
Workers from Tanta Flax and Oils, Shebin al-Kom Textiles, Nile Cotton Ginning, Nasr Steam Boilers, Petrotrade Petroleum and Simo Paper companies protested outside the Cabinet building on Saturday demanding the reinstatement of hundreds of sacked workers and the re-operation of stalled factories.
Representatives of the workers filed their demands and grievances in writing to the secretarial officers of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s newly appointed government.
Saturday marked the 28th day of an ongoing sit-in of workers from Tanta Flax and Shebin al-Kom Textile companies outside the headquarters of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). They were later joined by workers from the other companies demanding that the state uphold verdicts issued by the Administrative Court nearly three years ago.
Tanta Flax, along with the Shebin el-Kom Textile and Nasr Boilers, all had their privatization contracts nullified by the court in September 2011, on the basis that they were sold at grossly undervalued prices.
Some protesting workers carried a cardboard coffin on their shoulders inscribed with the words: “May judicial verdicts rest in peace.” The coffins were left to rest outside the Cabinet offices.
Abdel Aziz Mohamed, who had been sacked from Tanta Flax, said: “We are willing to work for free for as long as it takes to get our company running again.”
He added that while the government is calling on workers to halt protests and strikes in order to increase productivity, their companies’ operations remain stalled. “We want to end our protest, and we want to go back to work but the authorities are preventing us from doing so,” he said.
Authorities from the Ministry of Investment as well as the Holding Company for Chemical Industries claimed last year that Tanta Flax may be up and running by 2015. But after nearly four years of unemployment, the sacked workers of Tanta Flax have grown impatient with officials’ promises.
Atef Hussein, from the privatized Simo Paper Company, said that he and his fellow workers are protesting because investors had halted production and not paid wages since June 2013.
“We have been demanding the re-operation of our company and the payment of our overdue wages for nearly a year now, but government officials and authorities from the Holding Company for Chemical Industries have ignored our pleas,” he said.
Several months ago, workers from Simo Paper filed a case before the Administrative Court claiming that their company had been sold for less than its market value. The court is scheduled to issue a verdict in this case on March 15.
Hassan Mohamed, a worker in Nasr Steam Boilers, said that the Administrative Court’s verdict ruling that the state re-operate the company “has been shelved, and our demands have fallen on deaf ears.”
He described the company as “a national treasure lost to negligence, privatization and mismanagement.”
Joining the protest outside the Cabinet, Atef Abdel Mongy, an independent labor activist, said that the new Minister of Manpower Nahed al-Ashry and the rest of Mehleb’s Cabinet want to put an end to labor unrest, “but they lack the political willpower to uphold labor rights, to return workers to their jobs, or to create new job opportunities.”
“They want to end strikes and labor protests, yet they offer the workers next to nothing in return.”