CAMBRIDGE, MA: It is difficult for any observer of Egyptian politics to miss the the various signs of the consolidation of authoritarianism which Egypt has witnessed over the last few years: draconian laws, police brutality, enforced disappearances and imprisonment of well over 40,000 political dissidents, not to mention an unprecedented crackdown on free speech, academic and artistic freedoms. Amidst all this, it might be easy to claim that the Egyptian society is going through a period of political stagnation. However, I argue here that this would be a reductive picture.

Despite the high costs of direct engagement in political action in Egypt recently, many segments of Egyptian society have found ways to continue their struggle for “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity:” from university students, to labor unions and feminist organizations. I highlight here one of the glimmers of hope represented by socio-professional mobilization and focus, as an example, on recent developments at the Egyptian Medical Syndicate (EMS).

In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, the EMS held its first election in 2011, after a 19-year hiatus. A group of independent doctors, who struggled for several years before the revolution for better wages and for the overhaul of the health system, managed to occupy a number of seats, although the majority of the seats and the leadership of the syndicate went to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the following elections in 2013, they consolidated their position by winning a majority of the seats, and in 2015, and despite running against a much better-funded regime-supported electoral list, the “Independence List” swept the elections. By virtue of their being vocal advocates for doctors’ professional demands and by combining that professional mobilization with consistent demands for reforming the health sector, that group of doctors managed to galvanize wider support. They staged two nearly-three-month-long strikes in public hospitals in 2012 and 2014, while offering free healthcare for patients in ERs. They have also fought for the right of prisoners’ to medical care and stood up to the political exploitation of the suffering of the sick and poor.

More recently, and in the midst of police impunity, police assaults on medical doctors and healthcare workers have escalated. In January 2016, two emergency doctors were assaulted in a major public hospital in Cairo by policemen who wanted the doctors to issue one of them a medical report that significantly exaggerated his injuries. When the doctors refused, they were severely beaten and arrested. The board of the EMS immediately expressed its unconditional support for the assaulted doctors and their colleagues and endorsed their decision to close down the hospital until the assailants are arrested. Despite pressures from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the parliament and a smear campaign led by pro-regime media, the doctors stood their ground and called for an extraordinary general meeting of the EMS.

On February 12, 2016, in a historic turnout, over 10,000 Egyptian doctors showed up for the extraordinary general meeting of the EMS. The doctors filled all the meeting halls and thousands overflowed into the street chanting, despite a draconian anti-protest law, against the “thuggery” of the MOI. Hundreds more, activists, public figures, representatives of political parties, syndicates and other civil society organizations, turned out to show their support for the doctors.

In their meeting, dubbed “The Day of Dignity,” doctors voted, among others things, to hold regular protests in front of their hospitals and to offer medical care for free in ERs. Despite, or perhaps because of, the EMS’ insistence that their demands are professional, not political, the mobilization succeeded in galvanizing public support with the doctors against police impunity and the disregard for the rule of law. Similar mobilizations are spreading to several other socio-professional groups: lawyers, engineers, and journalists, among other professionals who are using their social capital to galvanize wider support and create new spaces for political action.

(Cover Photo: Doctors in front of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate for its extraordinary general meeting, February 12th 2016, (photo by the Egyptian Medical Syndicate)).