Saturday, March 22, 2008


The week I have just spent at the Doctors’ Syndicate sit-in was an interesting first-hand lesson in Egyptian union politics, the weakness of a fragmented labour movement and the dangers of temperamental Shattafaat.

The sit-in was organised after the Syndicate unilaterally ‘postponed’ the strike doctors had voted for with an overwhelming majority during an emergency general assembly meeting in February. Doctors voted to hold a two-hour strike on the 15th March in order to draw attention to their demands for a 1,000 LE minimum wage – senior doctors working in ministry of health hospitals are paid an average of 600 LE per month. Samia, who cleans my house three times a week, takes 720 LE per month.

Syndicate head Hamdy El-Sayyed had publicly expressed support for the strike, taking part in two protests outside the People’s Assembly during which he went on at length to the media about the iniquity of current wage scales. El-Sayyed is a tiny man with a big voice whose emotions are impossible to fathom behind his impenetrable and unchanging gaze. During one of the protests he was given a placard to hold up for a photo op and looked – as far as it was possible to tell – thoroughly uncomfortable, like a tourist on a Nile cruise forced against his will to don a belly dancer costume.

But then there has been an element of masquerade about the Syndicate’s handling of the strike generally. A week before the strike was meant to take place Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said during a radio interview that strikes in ‘vital sectors’ are illegal (a position refuted here, in Arabic). The Syndicate reacted by announcing that the strike had been postponed ‘out of concern that striking doctors would suffer legal repercussions’, only a few days before it was meant to go ahead. I find it impossible to believe that during the continuous negotiations between the Syndicate and the ministry of health in the lead up to the 15th the necessity of telling El-Sayyed that the strike he had endorsed was supposedly illegal slipped ministry officials’ minds…Was this move planned by the government from the beginning or was it a response to growing support for the strike? Was it orchestrated in concert with the Syndicate? Who knows.

On the first day of the sit-in El-Sayyed arrived at the Syndicate in his chauffer-driven car, got out and walked past the protestors as if they did not exist, with that inscrutable mask of his – just as he had done during a previous protest at the Syndicate. I was disconcerted by this, and contrasted it later with his sycophantic reception of a government figure of some sort during the Doctor Day ceremony held at the Syndicate.

I made friends with an eccentric, pleasantly odd, unemployed middle-aged doctor who appears to use the Syndicate as his office and seems to know everyone employed in anything medical-related in Qasr el-Aini and its environs. The first time he spoke to me after seeing me at the People’s Assembly protests he asked me for the address of the newspaper’s office. “Maybe I will write you a letter,” he said - which broke the ice in fine style.

We once found the chauffeur sitting in the Syndicate’s reception once, jiggling his keys and wearing sunglasses. “You remind me of Gamal Abdel Nasser in those sunglasses of yours” eccentric doctor said. The chauffeur smiled, said nothing, continued shaking his keys, as impenetrable as his guvnor.

An unpleasant discovery I made during the sit-in was the exact extent of security body involvement in the everyday workings of the Syndicate, which might be termed insidious if it weren’t for the fact that there is nothing stealthy about it. The officer assigned to the sit-in was a man who looked like a cross between American TV chef Emeril Lagasse and James Gandolfini, if both were mixed together and then struck with a bus. State security officers seem to spend 90% of their time talking into mobiles, and this bloke was no exception: during the daily protests at 2 p.m. his job was to repeat into his mobile the slogans chanted by the main chanter. He did this at the same times as the other doctors repeated the chants, so it looked like he himself was joining in the protest.

When not doing this he ate lib, scowled or smoked, or did all three at the same time. At the very beginning of the sit-in (when I suppose he didn’t know what to expect and had to show them who’s boss from the getgo) he had an altercation with a protestor who was filming the crowd with his mobile phone and filmed the officer – who he had no way of knowing was an officer (and even if he did, so what?). The men grappled over the mobile before they were separated and tempers cooled, but in his anger in the immediate aftermath he pointed at one of the sit-in’s leaders, Dr Mona Mina and, his face contorted with fury, bellowed “YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING SAID HERE TODAY” like a petulant dictator on crack.

It soon became obvious however that the small group of mainly middle-aged doctors who gathered on the Syndicate’s steps everyday and who hushed the chant leader every time he strayed into politics were not about to start the revolution. The police presence at protests gradually grew less and less. The officer spent his time wandering around the Syndicate, smoking, talking to staff and drinking coffee. I went into an administrative office in the Syndicate once and found him there, slumped in a sofa and chewing gum, and immediately buggered off. Outside a lad from the buffet was wandering around with a tray of Turkish coffee saying, “fein Osama basha” [where’s basha Osama] before someone directed him to the administrative office.

This was apparently an entirely normal state of affairs. And of course it is – imagine the power wielded by an unchecked group of over 100,000 individuals with an independent leadership, and imagine the threat posed if this group coordinated with other large bodies. So unions are emasculated using various means, including freezing the elections of Syndicates whose members predominantly belong to an opposition political bloc i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood, as is the case with the Doctors’ Syndicate, whose elections have been frozen since the early 1990s.

And it is for this reason why any organised challenge to all this is so exciting. The sit-in organised by Doctors Without Rights was tiny, never really gaining momentum despite the commitment of the doctors who attended. Protestors called off the sit-in for one day during the Doctors Day ceremony at the ‘request’ of the Syndicate (= security bodies) and on Tuesday rugs were laid on the steps where previously the protestors had been standing, and not a single protestor came. I think this was a fatal mistake, but then I haven’t got children to worry about.

The sit-in was nonetheless a rare expression of dissent against both Syndicate hegemony and the state, both of whom are shafting doctors.

I was disappointed that university professors – who are striking tomorrow and who have more or less the same demands as doctors – did not show support to doctors during the sit-in. I am told there was an appearance on the first day by members of the March 9 university professors lobby group but that was the extent of it. I went to a press conference on Wednesday by university professors ahead of the strike, returning to the sit-in afterwards, and was given to understand that members of the university professors strike committee would join the protest. They did not, even though three of the university professors who spoke during the press conference are themselves doctors.

I noted the same lack of coordination within a single profession when I covered a couple of strikes within the Egyptian National Railways recently. The protest by train conductors was incredibly impressive; they turned out in huge numbers, laid down on train tracks, were noisy, organised and determined, and won. But two months later when I told one of them about a protest by train drivers I was covering in Beni Suef, he had no idea about it.

This fragmentation is a natural consequence of political repression I suppose. The Doctors’ Syndicate demonstrated its appreciation of how useful the divide and rule formula is during the emergency general assembly meeting held yesterday. After an electric two-hour session during which Syndicate leaders were interrupted by doctors shouting out slogans and tempers rose and El-Sayyed threatened to walk out the Syndicate ‘voted’ to continue negotiations with the government and to hold a two-hour protest outside hospitals on the 23rd with regional syndicates permitted to organise their own protests. This decision was ‘approved’ by Syndicate members despite the fact that for two hours speaker after speaker from regional syndicates voiced their support for strike action.

Mona Mina asked the gathering whether they supported the idea of a two-hour protest outside the hospitals on the 6th April. The response was overwhelmingly yes, and yet Syndicate heads picked the 23rd out of the air and pushed the decision through in a noisy and chaotic vote during which half of the assembly could not hear what treasurer Essam el-Erian was saying. One doctor in the audience shouted out “enta faashel zay Fathy Sorour!” [you’re a failure like (People’s Assembly speaker) Fathy Sorour].

Towards the end of the meeting the call of nature I had been ignoring for an hour became too strong to resist and I made my way to the water cabinets. While I was doing the necessary I was suddenly aware of an intense feeling of wetness on my calves, and discovered that the Shattaafa – the bidet function installed in toilets in progressive countries – was apparently an automaton, and had decided to switch itself on.

Alas so lost was I in reflecting on the emergency general assembly, and what I would have for dinner, that it took me some moments to register the ocean of water gathering at my feet - by which time my trousers were almost entirely saturated.

I contemplated standing outside in the sun for half an hour rather than walking back into a room of 1000 doctors who would all think that I had had suffered an incontinence-related mishap, but unfortunately at that exact moment El-Sayyed threw a tantrum which was not to be missed.

There is a big screen in the Syndicate reception showing the events inside the main hall, and just as I walked past it, bow-legged, all hell broke loose. One of the speakers had apparently suggested that health minister Dr Hatem el-Gabaly be stripped of Syndicate membership. I didn’t hear why but I would assume that it’s because el-Gabaly has done bugger all for doctors. NDP member El-Sayyed took fierce umbrage at the mere suggestion of this, standing up and attempting to walk out in a demonstration of impressive obsequiousness.

Having shown where his loyalties lie he was eventually placated and returned to his seat before the Syndicate ‘voted’ and everyone went home, many with a feeling that they had just witnessed a farce, one of them in very wet trousers indeed.

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