Rumbles of discontent
While the Muslim Brotherhood attempts to monopolise the political sphere, popular dissent against Islamist rule is growing, shifting the ground beneath the regime's feet, writes Mohamed Hassan Khalil
Egyptian doctors plan to stage a general strike in all state-run hospitals as of 1 October. The strike, which is not going to interfere with the normal operations of emergency rooms or with care for patients in critical conditions, is meant to press long-standing professional demands. These include a tripling of the health budget, higher salaries, and a tightening of security in all hospitals. During the recent few months, random attacks by thugs on hospitals led to injuries among staff as well as the destruction of several emergency rooms.
The abovementioned demands, as spelled out in decisions passed by the General Assembly of the Doctors Syndicate, surfaced four years ago, with pressure from Doctors Without Rights, a group dedicated to the improvement of healthcare and the betterment of working conditions for medical practitioners.
The Doctors Syndicate Council has been reluctant to adopt these demands, and even when it offered its consent to the strike, it tried to make it temporary, rather than open-ended, which is the formula preferred by the General Assembly of the same syndicate.
In March 2011, the General Assembly called for the resignation of the health minister, citing his connections to the old regime and support for privatisation schemes.
The General Assembly has already arranged for two major strikes. The first took place on 10 May and the second a week later. Over 200 hospitals participated in the strikes.
The planned strike is expected to be the broadest so far, as organisers took measures to ensure that all hospitals nationwide will take part.
Doctors are not alone in seeking to change conditions through industrial action. Professional groups across the country have been pressing for change, freedom, social justice, and human dignity -- the ideals of the January Revolution of which little, if anything, has materialised.
In July and August alone, nearly 900 strikes have been held across the country, organised by activists who believe that the change in the country's power structure has failed to bring about tangible benefits for the wider public.
Until change is brought about, there will be no let down in the protests, for the barrier of fear has been dismantled and the public has no more tolerance for exploitation and oppression.
Protests are only one form of action. Throughout the country, independent groups are forming to defend democracy in a basic and direct manner. The need for these outlets of action cannot be underestimated, for the scope of freedoms has failed to grow in the country after the revolution.
In fact, more freedom-restricting laws have been passed since the revolution. Some of these laws allow for the trial of strike organisers in military courts while others criminalise various forms of mass protest. The fact that these laws remain inactive is testimony to the change of power that happened in the Egyptian street. So, in the absence of the right legal framework, a form of de facto democracy has surfaced in the country, one achieved through continual protests and citizen-led initiatives. To give you one example, we used to have three independent syndicates before the revolution. Now we have nearly 850.
The potential for effective political action is also growing, due to the merger of various parties to form four main currents: religious, liberal, leftist, and Nasserist. It is likely that the three latter currents would form a coalition to challenge the ruling Islamists, whose opposition to freedom and nourishment of secularism is clear in every step they take, including their approach to the constitution.
In the five months of the Islamist-dominated parliament we had from January to June of this year, and in the three months of Mohamed Mursi's presidency, we've seen no sign that the Islamists are willing to promote freedom. The opposite is true, for they are trying to exclude others and monopolise power, while ignoring the aspirations of the public at large.
The Islamists, who are a majority in the Constituent Assembly, are bent on writing a constitution that would legalise sectarianism, quash freedoms, and bring the country under theocratic rule.
The recent ministerial formation also suggests that the religious current, having banished SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) from political life, is determined to dominate the executive branch of government.
The recent appointments of governors don't augur well either. Most of the new governors belong to the Islamist current. The Muslim Brotherhood has even punished governorates who voted against them in the recent elections by appointing ultra-religious governors to run them. This was true in Alexandria and Kafr Al-Sheikh, which voted for Hamdeen Sabahi, and Sharqiya, which voted for Ahmed Shafik.
A look at the current budget of 2012/2013 reinforces this impression. The said budget is a budget of austerity, designed to meet the demands of the IMF, not to promote egalitarianism, as one would have expected.
The Egyptian government has been trying since last year to secure a loan from the IMF. The loan was initially rejected by SCAF. Then negotiations resumed in early 2012, after the appointment of Al-Ganzouri's government.
The IMF made it clear since April 2012 that it wasn't just negotiating with the government, but with officials from the Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Nour Party. Now we know the outcome of these negotiations, for what we have is an austerity budget that freezes wages, health and education (university salaries the sole exception) as per IMF conditions.
Just before leaving power in late June, SCAF said that the president has the right to amend the budget as he wished. The aim of this statement was to make clear that the new president would be free to formulate his own policies, and should not blame SCAF for restricting his options in any way.
Recently, the government declared its intention to raise the prices of gasoline and natural gas. Then it changed its mind, deciding to leave natural gas alone. Then it got cold feet and decided to postpone the whole thing.
Still, after the IMF approves the loan in November, the room of manoeuvre for the government will be narrowed, and a new wave of price hikes will take place.
In view of all of the above, resentment of Muslim Brotherhood policies is likely to rise. The writing is already on the wall as many threaten to boycott the Constituent Assembly, which has done nothing but wreck any chance for an even-handed constitution to take form.
The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to belittle the power of its opponents, but the charade is not going to go on for long. The Brotherhood is faced with determined opponents on all fronts, and its government is harassed by strikes and protests at every turn. Doctors, teachers, transport workers, and many others are making no secret of their resolve to uphold the principles of social justice and democracy.
So far, the government has been doing nothing to placate its critics, aside from calling for patience or ignoring the whole matter. Meanwhile, the only policy in which this government seems to be interested is that of protecting the privileges of the rich. The government has not come out in favour of more taxes on the privileged classes. Indeed, it hasn't taken any measures towards reducing energy subsidies to major corporations, although these corporations sell their products at international prices, if not more.
The government is either unable or reluctant to meet the demands of the people. And yet it is eager to placate the IMF. This cannot go on forever. A shift is going to happen in the balance of power in this country, simply because the political movements and citizen groups that oppose the Muslim Brotherhood are gaining momentum all the time.
The writer is a heart specialist and coordinator of the Committee for Defending the Right to Health.