After two members of Egypt's Doctors' Syndicate, a union of medical professionals, were savagely beaten inside their own hospital by police in January, the country's medical workers decided to violate the government's ban on protests in order to publicly demand that it reign in its security forces.
Throughout February, Egyptian doctors staged a series of illegal rallies across the country. Last week, in a move designed to increase pressure on the government by depriving it of revenue, doctors in public hospitals also stopped charging for medical care.
The showdown was set off by a violent encounter between two police officers and two surgeons at Cairo's Matariya hospital last month. It began when two men arrived in the hospital's emergency room on January 28 with an odd request: one had a small cut on his face and asked the two doctors on duty to write up a medical report saying that he was gravely injured.
According to the doctors, Ahmed El-Sayed and Mo'men Abdel Azim, the man who was accompanying the fellow with the cut slugged Azim in the face and broke his glasses when the request was refused.
When the doctors threatened to call the police, the assailant pulled out a gun.
"We are the police!" he shouted, and slammed Azim across the back of the head with the butt of his firearm as if to drive the point home.
As the hospital staff tried to calm the situation, the two policemen called for backup. Eight more officers arrived and dragged Azim and El-Sayed outside, where they beat them before hauling them to a nearby police station.
Though the doctors had planned on filing charges against the officers, they were quickly intimidated into backing down after meeting with a public prosecutor at the station.
"We were threatened with spending the night in jail" if they pursued charges, Azim told VICE News — a prospect that terrified him and his colleague. "I see dead people coming out of there everyday."
The unfortunate experience fits into a larger pattern of police impunity within Egypt. In the past year alone, non-governmental organizations and human rights activists have documented hundreds of cases of police brutality and violations, from cruelty towards civilians, to arbitrary use of live ammunition, and even the killing of detainees and raping of women. Over that span, the Nadeem Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence has reported 700 deaths in custody, 464 cases of forced disappearances, 175 assassinations, 25 demonstration casualties, and 23 deaths during scuffles between civilians and police officers.
Victims of police violence are typically working-class individuals who have no way of applying pressure on authorities. Earlier this month, a young microbus driver in his twenties was shot in the head during a traffic dispute with an off-duty police officer in the working-class district of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar. His family camped out outside the police station overnight to call for authorities to launch a formal investigation, but the police refused.
Such incidents are disturbing enough, but the hospital beating struck a nerve among Cairo's doctors, who are accustomed to receiving some level of respect and deference from authorities. On February 12, nearly 10,000 of them gathered in front of the Doctors' Syndicate's headquarters in Cairo — the entire building, its hallways, and even the rooftop overflowed with doctors who traveled from throughout the country to attend what the union dubbed an "Assembly of Dignity."
Doctors carried signs denouncing the attack. "I am the doctor — who is going to stitch my injury?" one banner read. Another sign showed a rifle shooting at a doctor's coat with the caption "police are thugs." Such political protests are officially banned in Egypt, unless organizers acquire permission from authorities to publicly assemble.
The demonstration produced a list of demands: the government, the doctors decided, must ban arms from hospitals, install cameras in medical facilities to ensure safety, and impose a fair trial and punishment on the officers who were involved in the Matariya beating. To apply pressure on the government, the doctors decided to waive fees for medical care in public hospitals until their demands are met rather than go on strike.
"This is a turning point in our union's history," said Hussein Khairy, the chairman of the Doctors' Syndicate. "We want the rule of law. Assaulters, whether they are a doctor or a policeman, must be punished."
After the doctors rallied, Egyptian Minister of Health Ahmed Emad El-Din declared that any doctor who fails to charge for services would be suspended from work.
Despite the public outcry, conditions at Matariya hospital haven't improved. A few days after the hospital assault, one of the police officers who threatened Azim to drop the charges at the local station was transferred to a post inside the hospital. The reassignment served as a not-so-subtle reminder that in Egypt, no one, not even an emergency room doctor, challenges the police.
"I don't feel safe here anymore," Azim said.
Nevertheless, the Doctors' Syndicate is a powerful institution in Egypt and its protests have elicited some lip service from authorities. Five days after the doctors made their demands, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi asked his Interior Minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, to propose new legislation to reform police conduct — though he offered no specifics about what such a proposal should look like. Ghaffar also issued a public apology and promised to look into the incident at the hospital.
The official response has not inspired much confidence.
"Asking the police to propose the laws they have to abide by is like asking a criminal to issue a ruling against themselves," remarked Moukhtar Mounir, an Egyptian human rights lawyer. The Ministry of Interior did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News.
Nobody has been arrested for the Matariya hospital incident. Even if the officers were to ultimately stand trial, as the doctors are demanding, nothing is likely to change, Mounir said. The country's constitution and the laws governing police operations and protocols already provide for human rights, but these safeguards are commonly disregarded in practice.
"The police are above the law in Egypt," said Mounir.
Meanwhile, Azim is hoping to get a visa to leave Egypt altogether.
"How can I live in a country where those who protect you are your biggest threat?" he asked.