Healthy Discussions

29 March 2011

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.

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 Doctors without Rights (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.

El-Erian had been absent from the podium 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 later that El-Erian wanted the general assembly to be restricted to discussion of amendment of four articles in the Syndicate’s implanting statute. When Mona Mina proposed the formation of a transitional Syndicate board to take over until elections are held to elect a new board El-Erian interrupted her and instructed her not to discuss issues other than the amendment of the four articles. The general assembly erupted in anger and El-Erian left.

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.

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”. 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 stuff getting done).

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. Legislative amendments were approved allowing elections to be brought forward to October of this year (rather than 2012). A committee composed of three board members and six non-Syndicate board members (including right to health activist Mohamed Hassan Khalil) will negotiate directly with the government. Where negotiations fail the general assembly upheld the right of doctors to protest or take strike action.
The general assembly voted to demand the removal of health minister Ashraf Hatem “and all officials from the current administration”.

Improvement of wages was of course a principal concern of the general assembly and, in addition to demanding a minimum monthly wage of LE 1,500 doctors are calling for a cap on senior Ministry of Health officials’ wages of LE 20,000 per month. Doctors also called for the right to two days off each week and for weekly working hours to be in accordance with international legal standards.

I met Mona Mina two days after the general assembly. She said that she and other DWR members had spent the afternoon fighting with the Syndicate board after its failure to put only two of the decisions reached on its website (thereby making them official).