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Egypt’s Popular Uprising and the Stakes of Medical Neutrality


Amidst the recent political uprisings in the Arab region, physicians and other healthcare workers have found themselves in the crossfire. This paper focuses on Egypt’s doctors, paying special attention to how many have both appealed to and practiced medical neutrality as its own potent and contested political stance, particularly since the period of military rule following Mubarak’s removal from power. Our paper draws on interviews with physicians who served as volunteers in the field hospitals in the days of unrest and violence, and with others who played a major role in documenting protesters’ injuries, police brutality, and other forms of state violence against unarmed citizens. Based on interviews with doctors who belong to organizations such as “Tahrir Doctors” and “Doctors Without Rights,” our paper reveals how these doctors’ commitment to professional ethics put them at odds with the orders of military personnel, rendering their appeal to “medical neutrality” a weighty political act in and of itself.

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  1. For a detailed discussion of the principle of medical neutrality as both immunity and impartiality, see Michael Gross (2006).

  2. In this sense, like Redfield, we are interested in how medical neutrality can be “as much a strategic weapon of the weak as a hegemonic assumption of the powerful” (2013:118).

  3. Prior to this time, notions of partial or imperfect neutrality were recognized. As the scope of war widened in the nineteenth century, the concepts of “neutrality” and “conflict” took on more absolute, fixed meanings (Redfield 2011).

  4. Unpublished reports and collected testimonies by The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

  5. The focus on doctors and health in times of conflict is part of a global trend of codifying international humanitarianism through moral and legal categories. As Redfield puts it, “The fiction of standing outside battle (hors de combat) could now [since the nineteenth century] be predetermined by professional status as a medical worker and bodily states related to suffering” (Redfield 2011:59).

  6. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, “Field Doctors Bear Witness to the Targeting of Field Hospitals in Tahrir Square by Security Forces and Military” [Last accessed February 27, 2015].

  7. Press conference by doctors in the Press Syndicate, Cairo, Egypt, December 2011.

  8. Interview with Amani Massoud and Dalia Abd El-Hameed of The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, conducted by the authors in June 2014.

  9. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, “Field Doctors Bear Witness to the Targeting of Field Hospitals in Tahrir Square by Security Forces and Military” [Last accessed February 27, 2015].

  10. Ibid.

  11. Several non-governmental organizations, particularly the organization Tahrir Doctors, have kept reports of the numbers of injured and the types of injuries for those treated, or at least given first-aid care, in the field hospitals. The Department of Forensics and Toxicology at Cairo University’s Medical School and Teaching Hospital, Qasr El-Aini, keeps similar records for those admitted to the Teaching Hospital. Members of these organizations have confirmed these records during our interviews with them in December 2012, June 2013, and June 2014.

  12. Based on interviews with Sherine Hamdy in December 2012 and with Soha Bayoumi in June 2013.

  13. Interview with authors in June 2014.

  14. For slogans, see Accessed 31 August 2014.


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We presented earlier versions of this paper at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Workshop on “Delimiting Egypt: Nationality, Land, and Bodies,” at Harvard’s Science, Technology, and Society Circle, and at Brown University’s “Clinic in Crisis” Symposium. We would like to thank all the participants and organizers for their helpful questions and comments. Sherine Hamdy’s research was supported by the Greenwall Foundation Faculty Scholar Program in Bioethics and by a Watson Institute Collaborative Grant from Brown University. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on an earlier version.


This study was funded by the Greenwall Faculty Scholars Program in Bioethics and by a collaborative grant from the Watson Institute at Brown University.

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Correspondence to Sherine F. Hamdy.

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Sherine Hamdy and Soha Bayoumi declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this study.

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Hamdy, S.F., Bayoumi, S. Egypt’s Popular Uprising and the Stakes of Medical Neutrality. Cult Med Psychiatry 40, 223–241 (2016).

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  • Medical neutrality
  • Medical ethics
  • Doctors
  • Arab Spring
  • Egypt
  • Political conflict