CAIRO — Dr. Shadia Thabet, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s health committee, is determined to advance a bill that bans doctors from traveling abroad unless they spend 10 years serving in public hospitals. Critics call it a clear violation of the rights of doctors and health specialists, as well as a violation of constitutional guarantees for citizens' freedom of movement and emigration.
In a press statement to Barlamany website Dec. 6, Thabet said the law will soon be submitted to parliament for approval in the next few days as soon as all its articles are completed.
Thabet gave her reasoning for the bill. She said, “We have a shortage of doctors and nurses in the emergency rooms of most public hospitals. Besides, we do not have enough medical staff and engineers, among other specialists capable of developing the state. Therefore, legislation to curb this phenomenon must be put forth.”
Thabet said she had just finished six articles for the bill, including unattainable conditions for doctors who wish to travel abroad. For instance, they would have to pay 20% of their monthly salary earned outside Egypt to the Egyptian treasury in foreign currency, not Egyptian pounds, and also repay the costs of their education.
Another article limits the emigration of specialized staff such as engineers, with the state determining the need for them.
As soon as Thabet disclosed these details, the doctors syndicate, of which she is a member, responded on Dec. 7. Its spokesperson Hani Mhana told Doctornewsweb.com, “The bill is unreasonable, and the syndicate strongly rejects it.” Mhana added, “The bill aims to obstruct doctors and stands in the way of their ambition because it deprives them of their right to travel to improve their standards of living, as opposed to the little money they earn [in Egypt].”
He expressed wonder at how Thabet, a doctor herself, could ban medical professionals from traveling or force them to repay the costs of their education, and said that the syndicate would inform the parliament’s health committee of its objection to the unreasonable bill.
The doctors syndicate was not the only professional organization to attack Thabet. The council of the engineers syndicate issued an official statement Dec. 8 voicing its rejection of the bill and its provisions. The council promised to protect engineers’ right to travel and work under the constitution, and warned that such a bill would only breed more social tension and serve the interests of parties that want to “destroy the country.”
Article 62 of Egypt's constitution guarantees Egyptians' freedom of movement, residence and emigration. It states, “No citizen may be expelled from state territory or banned from returning thereto. No citizen may be banned from leaving state territory, placed under house arrest or banned from residing in a certain area except by a causal judicial order for a specified period of time, and in cases specified by the law.”
Article 92 of the constitution notes, “The rights and freedoms of individual citizens may not be suspended or reduced. No law that regulates the exercise of rights and freedoms may restrict them in such a way as infringes upon their essence and foundation.”
Doctors in Egypt face tough living circumstances due to their low incomes, the lack of medical equipment in hospitals and their constant feeling that the state ignores them and dedicates resources to military officers, police officers and judges. They are tempted to travel abroad as soon as they graduate to improve their living standards and continue their education. Their situation is the same as that of engineers and other highly educated individuals.
In general, a doctor in a public Egyptian hospital earns around 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($78) per month from the Ministry of Health, while another in a private hospital might earn 3,000 ($157). While salaries vary according to specialization and experience, the highest paid doctors in Egypt work in private clinics.
In an attempt to alleviate the tensions, Thabet expressed her support for doctors’ needs and her desire to improve their living standards in a phone call with Mohammad Mustafa Shardi, the host of Al-Nahar TV's "Yom b Yom," Dec. 8. She said, “I am the first who defended the rights of doctors and demanded an additional 1,000 pounds [$52] in monthly allowance for them. While preparing this bill I have also been working to increase their low salaries, to ensure they can sustain a satisfying life.”
She added, “I proposed the bill because we have a serious shortage of doctors in Egypt. There are 377 public hospitals that have been shut down in the country due to lack of doctors and specialists. Villagers are suffering from a lack of services in their provinces, and it is hard for them to head to Cairo to receive treatment due to the cost involved.
“We have 24 ERs in Imbaba Fever Hospital [a public hospital in Cairo]. We are only able to keep 10 of them open. The 14 that remain are closed due to the medical shortage. So I had to take quick action to end the crisis.”
Tarek Kamel, a member of the doctors syndicate, told Al-Monitor, “What will Thabet do with judges who leave for Arab states? What about teachers who go to the Gulf countries as part of educational missions? What about other professionals whom the state invested in educating, be they lawyers, journalists or media staff? Why is Thabet insisting on discriminating between doctors and other social groups? The principle is wrong, and it is unacceptable that a parliamentarian representing the people in parliament would utter it.”
He added, “Didn’t Thabet ask why doctors are leaving their country as soon as they graduate? Doesn’t she see their deteriorating financial situation? Doesn’t she know that a doctor earns 1,200 pounds [$62] per month as soon as he graduates? Is this sum enough to provide a good life for them?”
Kamel added, “The main problem is not a shortage of doctors, but rather the bad geographical and specialization-based distribution of medical staff. Doctors need to be reassigned to resolve the crisis, rather than be forced to work in Egypt.”
He told Al-Monitor, “A minimum wage for doctors upon graduation must be set at at least 7,000 pounds [$364] per month before passing legislation that would destroy their lives and future.”