Correspondents met with General Secretary of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate (EMS), which is now in conflict with the Ministry of Interior after doctors were allegedly attacked in a government hospital.

On Friday, February 12 more than 10,000 doctors gathered inside and outside the Medical Syndicate in Kasr El Aini Street in Cairo in an emergency assembly to discuss Matareya policemen’s alleged assault against doctors in Matareya Hospital, which caused an emergency closure of both the emergency section and the reception.

Correspondents met with General Secretary of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate (EMS), which is now in conflict with the Ministry of Interior after doctors were allegedly attacked in a government hospital.

On Friday, February 12 more than 10,000 doctors gathered inside and outside the Medical Syndicate in Kasr El Aini Street in Cairo in an emergency assembly to discuss Matareya policemen’s alleged assault against doctors in Matareya Hospital, which caused an emergency closure of both the emergency section and the reception.

A crowd, which included doctors and supporters from the public and other syndicates, did not fit in the syndicate itself, so they stretched out to the street that leads to Tahrir Square. The syndicate building and the street around it thundered from the sounds of shouting voices: “dignity”, “freedom”, “the Ministry of Interior are thugs” and “Leave… We do not need you” referring to their desire to remove the Minister of Health.

The assembly meeting took several decisions, including the right for doctors to decline work in case of an assault on them or their facilities or in case of any pressure, retaliation or revenge against the Syndicate and the Matareya Teaching Hospital doctors. The doctors requested the parliament to issue legislation that criminalises assaults and attacks on medical facilities and/or staff. They called for protests in all of Egypt’s hospitals on Saturday 20 February, and that doctors in public and central hospitals, in centers, health units, hospitals affiliated with health insurance, curative institutions, hospitals, educational centers and specialized medical centers would offer medical service, tests and surgeries free of charge starting Saturday 27 February. They also requested all private doctors to close their clinics on Saturday 19 March, or provide free services on that day. They called also for collective resignations on March 25 if the above demand were not met. Last but not the least, they requested the dismissal of the Minister of Health and his referral to an investigation by the syndicate’s ethics committee.

The crowd welcomed the syndicate board profoundly, including Dr. Hussein Khairy, chief of doctors, and Dr. Mona Mina, the syndicate’s general secretary. This historic crowd was described as a revival of the Tahrir Square protests in 2011. Photos of syndicate members spread on social media sites in support of them and their syndicate in their battle against the Ministry of Interior’s rough handling of citizens on duty.

Some describe Dr. Mona Mina as Egypt’s First Lady, and others as the Iron Lady. She has a long history of syndicate work, and her calm face is familiar because she treated injured protesters during the 2011 revolution. According to her colleagues and to everyone who has ever worked with her, she has shown a strong will in the battles she fought, from issuing forensic reports, to treating patients and injured activists, to doctor’s rights and improving the health system in Egypt.

Dr. Mona Mina, how would you describe what happened in Matareya? Was it the first incident of its kind?

Assaults on doctors are hideous and it was not the first time. Assaults have increased with the (legal) loopholes made since the revolution. Sometimes there are explanations such as poor health service or the lack of beds, care or medicines. We understand this but never accept it. Last year, some security officers attacked doctors in Ahmad Maher Hospital in Cairo and in Damietta Hospital, but the only thing the perpetrators got was a normal legal action and nothing more.

However, the Matareya case was a bit different because the assaulters are the very police officers in charge of protecting the hospital. They belong to the Matareya Police Station, from which Matareya Hospital usually seeks help when an assault occurs.

This was a hideous crime and a lack of security for doctors and patients and thus it is impossible to provide medical assistance. The assailants were assisted by their colleagues who arrived to the hospital on a microbus and participated in the attack. They took two doctors, Momen Abdel Azim and Ahmad Al-Sayed, beat them, detained them at the police station and humiliated them by saying “we are your masters and the masters of this country.” It was only after the hospital manager had called the warden and requested their release that they were released. This was the first attack.

The second assault took place when the doctors, accompanied by the hospital administrative manager, an EMS representative and the EMS lawyer, went to the prosecutor general to lodge a complaint. They were surprise to find that the two doctors were accused of attacking the police officers. The prosecutor insisted on imprisoning them for four days pending investigation in the Matareya Police Department. This was to pressure them to drop chargers, which ignited the situation in the hospital.

The police message was that complaints mean imprisonment and this cannot be tolerated because it makes practicing the profession very difficult and opens the way for further abuses under such impunity. The doctors withdrew their complaint, but the syndicate insisted on its right to complain. The EMS council met the following and issued a statement that two citizens were kidnapped while on duty and the hospital was raided with weapons, and we requested the reopening of the investigation so that the assailants could be punished.

With this crisis, there have been reports about doctors’ mistakes and negligence that are not addressed by the EMS; what is the EMS’ response?

This constitutes a third attack after abusing the doctors and forging charges against them. Criticizing the doctors’ performance whenever they demand their rights is mere extortion. The syndicate did not deny mistakes made; after all doctors are human beings. However, we have proposed projects to train these doctors and improve their performance, raise the health budget, and control infection because these are the most relevant to treatment quality. Moreover, the lack of obligatory regulations for treatment makes every doctor behave on his own. However, this criticism of the doctors’ performance does mix between the human mistakes and the complications of some diseases, in addition to the weak health system. The criticism is a way to gag the doctors rather than solve the problem.

The syndicate has developed draft legislation about the physicians’ legal accountability, to be submitted to the parliament. The law differentiates between complex diseases and neglect. The arbitrators expected to decide on the accountability should be doctors, lawyers and citizens, following the example of the British Medical Association where doctors may not sue doctors, but can only give opinions to help reach a decision.

We are doing this to avoid mistakes and hold the wrongdoers accountable. However, we are amid a practice full of chaos and impotent, and these conditions increase the rates of the mistakes. The syndicate is talking about improving performance while the media is provocatively highlighting the mistakes without proposing any solutions.

What is the reason behind this unprecedented crowd of people? Did you expect it to be this huge?

I had expected a quorum with 3,000 doctors but not 10,000. The repeated provocation by some officials is the reason, including the prosecutor’s decision to release the accused policemen before the general assembly meeting, in addition to the charges against them: “lack of control” and not abuse, holding arms, breaking in the hospital or detaining citizens. This charge looks like the police officers were the ones assaulted.

Last Friday was an exceptional day and it proved that doctors and citizens care about their dignity more than salaries and the other problems facing them. The humiliation and bullying against doctors were too much to be tolerated.

We, doctors, work in a very difficult environment. Doctors face assaults by citizens and are also subject to infections and sometimes death. Yet, these conditions are used against us, while we are calling for reforms. The situations get even worse when the doctors are used as scapegoats in the media. Instead of criticizing the decreasing health budget, corruption and incompetence and instead of requesting better training for doctors and the provision of necessary medication, the media criticizes the doctors in an attempt to silence them using humiliation.

What is the doctors’ message to the authorities, and are there plans for escalation?

The message is that the doctors are angry, that things cannot go on this way and that the solution is to refer the accused to trial. This was evident in the General Assembly decisions to organize protests in all Egypt’s hospitals on Saturday February 20, and provide free medical consultation starting 27 February. This is a partial strike, but we consider the patients’ interests as priority especially to face provocation to create enmity between doctors and patients. The strike is not against the patients who will receive free services, but against the group that put themselves above everyone else.

Is it possible to learn from the EMS experience? And will we see similar movements in other professional associations?

This question should be answered by those associations. What I can say is that the syndicate is sincere in defending its members’ interests with professionalism and honesty, without trying to impose any certain position. We only communicate to the public what happened last Friday. If this creates hope among professionals and workers in other sectors that unionism would benefit their causes, the doctors will have handled their positive message.

Have you faced, or do you expect to face, a reaction from the authorities or a personal attack on you?

They questioned me and Dr. Hussein Khairy, concerning the hospital’s incident before the General Assembly, but I have not received any calls since the meeting. I do not rule this possibility out. In addition to the attack on doctors, I was personally attacked, including false allegations that I refused to treat police officers.

Everything is expected in this battle, but I will not care too much about these accusations because the case is simple, clear, and straightforward. Dr. Khairy, the EMS council members, and I will not give up and will not abandon the doctors and the patients. Everybody has the right to healthcare in respected hospitals that provide services, without bullying from police officers. Whoever violates the professional rules in a public service facility, must be harshly punished so that others will be deterred. These are clear rights and all citizens will support them.