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EGYPT: Pharamacists go on strike

Pharmacy_on_strike

If you want to dye your hair with a special rinse or stock up on vitamin E supplements, you may have to shop around.

Privately owned Egyptian pharmacies are on strike over new taxes imposed by the government. The provisions wipe away a 2005 agreement that lowered taxes on pharmacies. They call for a new bookkeeping method that requires pharmacists record all items in their tax returns, including non-pharmaceuticals, such as cosmetics and hair care products.

Health Minister Hatem el-Gabaly met with leaders of the Pharmacist Union, but so far no breakthrough. “If no solution is reached, the strike will continue,” said Mohamed Abdel Gawad, the union's deputy chairman. The union had reportedly announced that more than 90% of pharmacies went on strike Monday.

“I am actually calling for the exemption of pharmacies of all taxation because they are more of emergency units and not just distribution spots,” said pharmacist Ahmed Abdullah, who was on strike.

There are 45,000 private pharmacies in Egypt. Most of them are modest drug stores, with the exception of 100 pharmacies connected with with large chains, according to a union spokesman.

Pharmacy_on_strike_2

Abdullah suggested that there was a conspiracy in the timing of the government’s announcement of the new law. “We have just come out of the tense situation caused by the Israeli war on Gaza, so the government might have announced this now to distract people ... or to punish pharmacists for the role they played during this war by collecting donations for Gazans,” he said.

For the last couple of years, Egypt has been shaken by several strikes spearheaded by textile workers. Last spring, a textile strike turned into a riot in the town of Mahallah, which sent shock waves through President Hosni Mubarak’s government.

“We have been recently having a lot of strikes because the government is shortsighted; those in charge still deal with us like masters dealing with their slaves,” Abdullah said.

For the last few years, the incumbent government has been working hard on the restructuring of the taxation system to generate new revenue and control the budget deficit. However, these new arrangements elicited anger in a society in which the majority endures poverty and holds little trust in their government.

“Abroad, taxpayers can feel that taxes pay off, but here I cannot sense that,” added Abdullah, pointing to the poor infrastructure and mediocre welfare services provided by the government.   

However, it may be hard for lay people to sympathize with the pharmacists’ strike. Ahmed Farouk, an accountant with cardiac problems, stopped by a pharmacy on strike in downtown Cairo to scold its guard, saying: “This is insolence from you and the government.

“What would a diabetic person do in case he is in dire need for an insulin injection? Would he die in this situation?” wondered Farouk. “They [pharmacists] are pushing people to commit crimes and break through the gates of the pharmacies to get the medication they need.”

In the meantime, Farouk held the government equally responsible for the closure of pharmacies. “Why is the government so stubborn? Why does it not sit down with them and reach a compromise? It is the people who are paying the price of all that,” he said.

Yet not all privately owned pharmacies heeded the call for strike. Several drugstores were open.

-- Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photo, top and bottom: Closed pharmacies in downtown Cairo. Window banner in top picture reads, "The pharmacy is closed in protest of the intransigence of the Tax Authority vis-a-vis pharamacists."

Credit: Noha El-Hennawy   

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