CAIRO – When a doctor at a Cairo hospital told a police officer that his cut didn't require stitches, the response was startling and brutal. Police beat up the doctor and a colleague and dragged them off into custody.
The incident spiraled into protests by thousands of doctors in the Egyptian capital on Friday, a rare show of public outrage over police abuses that rights group say have escalated in the country. Such public demonstrations have become unusual in Egypt, where tens of thousands of political dissidents have been arrested and street protests without prior police permits have been banned since 2013.
While protesters gathered outside the building of the doctors' union, known as the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, inside members called for the resignation of the health minister — in part because of his lack of support — and threatened to go on partial strike.
The standoff between policemen and doctors suggested that Egypt's powerful security forces may have overstepped their limits by clashing with one of the country's most respected professions. On Friday, the Arabic hashtag "support the doctors' syndicate" was trending on Twitter in Egypt. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent local rights group, said the doctors' assault was "a reflection of the level of police abuse of authority these days."
The protests were sparked by an assault on Jan. 28 in Cairo's Matariya hospital, one of the largest in the city, which serves around 2,000 patients a day drawn from one of Cairo's poorest neighborhoods.
The hospital entrance is surrounded by piles of garbage, and the surrounding streets are crowded with hawkers selling everything from used clothes to chickens freshly slaughtered on the pavement. A police office is attached to the hospital building so that officers are on hand to intervene in the regular scuffles.
Around 10 minutes' walk away is Matariya's main police station, described by EIPR as a "slaughterhouse" because 14 people have died while in police custody there over the past two years.
The deputy head of the hospital, Mamoun Hassan el-Deeb, told The Associated Press that two young doctors named Ahmed Abdullah and Moamen Abdel-Azzem were attacked by two policemen — the officer with a scratch on his forehead, and his colleague.
According to the online and televised testimonies of Abdullah and Abdel-Azzem, they were beaten up by the policemen and one officer pulled out his gun and threatened other hospital staff.
A vehicle carrying around seven more policemen then rushed from station to arrest the doctors, according to a nurse who witnessed the assault. When one of the doctors tried to resist, he fell to the ground and a policeman stomped on his head with his boots. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal. The nurse was among a dozen hospital staffers who later testified in front of a prosecutor.
Inside the police station, high ranking policemen intervened to rescue the doctors and offered an apology.
"The apology was not accepted by the doctors, who were deeply humiliated," hospital chief el-Deeb said.
A senior police officer at the Matariya station denied the assault took place, saying the doctors in question were members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group. The accusation is commonly used to shed doubt on the motives of any dissenters in Egypt. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Abdel-Azzem said on his Facebook page that initially he filed an official complaint at the police station but later withdrew it for fear of detention inside Matariya police station, after officers filed a counter-complaint against him, accusing the medics of assault.
The withdrawal of the doctor's official complaint added fuel to the syndicate's anger. The union shut down the hospital for eight days and doctors threatened mass resignations if officers weren't held accountable.
The general prosecutor ordered an investigation into the incident and on Wednesday, 13 days after the assault, nine policemen were questioned and two were detained. All were released on Thursday pending further investigation, but the Interior Ministry announced Friday that the two police officers have been temporarily suspended from work.
These measures have not been enough to stem doctors' anger, and medics gathered in their thousands outside the syndicate calling for strikes and "dignity for doctors."
"I am the doctor, who is going to stitch my injury?" read one sign held by a young female doctor. Next to her a medic raised a banner that depicted a rifle shooting at a white doctor's coat together with the caption: "Police are thugs." Others held posters for detained doctors including Ahmed Said, a rights activist and a surgeon detained since November for political activism.
Meanwhile, syndicate members voted to offer free services in public hospitals and to call a partial strike in two weeks' time unless the officers involved are held accountable, measures are taken to protect medics from police intimidation and the health minister submits his resignation. The union said that any hospital in which doctors are assaulted will be closed.
"This is a turning point in our union's history," said Hussein Khairy, the chairman of the syndicate, addressing a crowd of doctors so large it filled all three floors and the roof of the building. "We want the rule of law. Assaulters, whether they are a doctor or a policeman, must be punished."
Pro-government media outlets painted the protest as politically-motived. Al-Assema, a private TV network, questioned whether Mona Mena, deputy head of the syndicate and a Christian, is an Islamist. Mena had urged doctors during Friday's gathering not to chant political slogans.
Yet others saw in the doctors' revolt echoes of Egypt's January 2011 uprising against longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. "The January revolution hasn't died and today is a new chapter," Egyptian writer Mahmoud Mohamed Hegazy wrote on his Facebook page.
Outside the syndicate, Rashwan Shaaban, a doctor and a union official, addressed a cheering crowd, saying, "I can't treat a patient while a gun is pointed to my side or a knife at my neck."