Rifts deepen as doctors’ strike continues

During a heated press conference at the Doctors Syndicate on Wednesday, syndicate members and activist doctors agreed that the strike has continued for the third day, but disagreed about everything else.

The disagreements reflect tension within the syndicate, which has simmered since the strike was announced at a general assembly of the syndicate on 21 September. Muslim Brotherhood members stormed out of the assembly meeting, at which members of the activist group Doctors Without Rights successfully argued for an indefinite strike.

Syndicate secretary Mohamed Osman began the press conference by affirming that the strike is “mature and civilized.”

“Three days of the strike went well and passed without problems,” he said. “I was glad to read the Ministry of Health statement which said that the ministry is in solidarity with doctors’ demands.”

Osman explained that the main goals of the strike are to make doctors’ demands reach Ministry of Health officials and to support the decisions that have been announced by government officials — in particular the payment of bonuses — which have not yet been implemented.

The syndicate secretary said that doctors have continued the strike despite recent government offers because of the “long history of broken government promises.” He added, however, that the number of doctors participating in the strike has decreased in the past 48 hours, putting participation at around 30 percent. He attributed this decrease to doctor satisfaction with recent pay pledges announced by President Mohamed Morsy.

On Saturday, the syndicate announced that Morsy had approved a financial and administrative package improving the terms of employment for doctors and medical workers, and allocating LE700 million to finance bonuses and allowances ordered by previous ministerial decrees but never paid.

This figure of 30 percent was strongly challenged by syndicate board member and Doctors Without Rights spokesperson Mona Mina, who read out figures putting participation as high as 100 percent in some hospitals. Osman questioned the sources for these figures, provoking the anger of Mina, who said that this was “inappropriate” and that the sources are “the doctors themselves.”

Mina said that the officially announced figure of 30 percent was an attempt to “disillusion” striking doctors and undermine the strike action.

Syndicate head Khairy Abdel Dayem dismissed this, suggesting that, “Numbers are not important. The success of the strike is not in figures. What matters is that our message is being received by the Ministry of Health.”

Mina again challenged this, pointing to an incident in Suez where the Ministry of Health sent medical caravans of doctors who were paid as much as LE600 to treat patients. Mina said that this in itself would not have been a problem if the doctors had remained outside the hospital, but they entered the hospitals and treated patients inside, which Mina described as the ministry breaking the strike.

Abdel Dayem, meanwhile, interpreted this incident as evidence of the strike’s success because it forced the health minister to change his policy and pay doctors rather than simply ignore the strike action. At the same time, Abdel Dayem thanked Health Minister Mohamed Mostafa Hamed for his promise to consider doctors’ pay demands.

There was further controversy about whether teaching hospital staff are supposed to take part in the strike, following a fax sent by the director of the teaching hospitals department. The fax allegedly quoted syndicate Secretary General Abdel Fattah Rezk as saying that they are not obligated to take part, because their staff are on the Education Ministry pay roster rather than the Ministry of Health’s.

Mina rejected this, saying that it is institutions rather than individuals that take part in the strike, and that teaching hospitals fall under the purview of the Ministry of Health. Mina expressed her fear that this might be another attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood — of which Rezk is a member — to sabotage the strike.

Ahmed Lotfy, a member of the syndicate board and its media spokesperson, responded by saying that the syndicate rejects attempts to politicize it and that anyone who infringes syndicate regulations will be held to account.

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