Egypt's doctors began on Monday a partial strike, abstaining from offering non-emergency services in public hospitals to protest run-down facilities and meager wages, the physician's union said.
It is the latest outbreak of labor unrest since the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Like workers in other sectors, the doctors say they are demanding remedy for decades of poor funding, neglect and corruption under the deposed president and his predecessors.
Twenty months after an uprising partially fueled by demands for social justice, they say, hospital overcrowding forces sick patients to sleep on the floor. Families must bring in their relatives' basic necessities such as blood bags and painkillers, as hospitals lack the money to buy them.
Doctors working in public hospitals receive a base salary of around $46 per month, and most of them hold another job in private hospitals or clinics to make ends meet.
"Poor people rely on these hospitals whether they like it or not," said Mona Mina, a member of the union who has campaigned for better health services in Egypt. "But they are disgusted by them, and argue with the doctors who are also disgusted by them. They are filthy places with no facilities."
Mina said the open-ended partial strike was the doctors' last resort after a five-year push to improve hospitals. Public health receives 4.8 percent of state budget — and out of this, the doctors say, around 30 percent goes to pay for sewage systems and another 30 percent for Health Ministry administrators' salaries. The few funds that do trickle down to hospitals are often used to renovate buildings, not pay for supplies, equipment or salaries.
Mohammed Abdel-Hamid, who is a spokesman for the doctors union, said public hospitals were "dumps." In his own, the emergency room's injection painkillers have not been replenished in over a month because of lack of resources.
"And this is in greater Cairo. Imagine how it would be if you got a little bit further out of the capital," he said. "Nothing has changed since the revolution," he said, referring to the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising that forced Mubarak out of office.
Abdel-Hamid said over 70 percent of the country's 520 public hospitals took part in the strike. They say they are not offering services in outpatient clinics, but those in teaching hospitals as well as emergency services are still being provided.
He said the strike began after negotiations with the government failed to secure a pledge for increases in the health budget.
A Ministry of Health official, however, said that only between 10 and 15 percent of doctors took part in the strike. There was no way to immediately reconcile the difference in estimates. The striking doctors' Facebook page said the government numbers were "lies."
The official, Ibrahim Mostafa, urged doctors to return to work "for the better interest of the citizens, particularly the poor ones."
In what appears to be an officially-orchestrated media campaign, state TV conducted a series of interviews with doctors opposed to the work stoppage. One said: "This is the most dangerous type of strike."
Abdel-Hamid and Mina said a number of hospital managers have threatened striking doctors with penalties to make them return to work. In one incident, a hospital manager transferred three doctors to another hospital as a punishment, but the union intervened to halt the decision, Mina said.
The spokesman for President Mohammed Morsi, Yasser Ali, said the government is seeking to find solutions for the striking doctors. "Everybody knows that Egypt has a financial crisis, which is not new today, but is a result of years of failures in managing state affairs," he said. "We need some patience."
He said Morsi already pledged to roll out $116 million to improve salaries and is awaiting a government report on health workers' needs before moving further.
Abdel-Hamid said union representatives met with Morsi last week, and that the pledged $116 million consists of delayed salaries and compensation for overtime. He said this is not enough — the doctors wanted a written pledge to increase the health sector's share of the budget to 15 percent, an amount which he said Egypt had committed to provide in an African Union declaration more than 10 years ago.
There are 50,000 registered doctors operating in Egypt, according to the latest government figures available in 2006.