The Doctors Union has a history of involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants Egypt governed by Islamic law and has seen hundreds of members arrested by security forces seeking to limit the group's chances in upcoming local elections. The doctors have been careful in recent demonstrations not to let their cause for higher salaries be subsumed into a wider and more dangerous political debate.
But many physicians feel that, although they still command a degree of respect in society, they are part of a vanishing middle class. "We have two classes today in Egypt -- the capitalists and the poor," Farahat said. "We have no middle class anymore. Given such conditions, there must be labor strikes."
His colleague, Mohammed Sayed, an orthopedic specialist, agreed. "Five years ago a strike by doctors would have been unthinkable," he said. "Overall, the economy is doing well, but the money is not getting to the people. It's going to the elite. In the 1960s and 1970s, Egypt had rich people but they were self-made, the sons of farmers who came from the Nile Delta. Today, the rich come from the rich class; they've done nothing to work for it. We are asking for a reasonable demand of 1,000 pounds a month."
The Egyptian government's underfunding of healthcare has created a public system in which the poor are forced to pay for medications, sutures and other items that would normally be covered by subsidies. The nation's healthcare system is divided into public and private institutions, but most hospital beds are funded by the state. Inflation and supply shortages prevent patients from filling prescriptions, resulting in extended illnesses and longer recovery times.
"We face difficulties in serving patients because public healthcare is, in effect, being privatized in a ruthless way," said Said Sayed, a spokesman for the Doctors Union, which represents Egypt's 167,000 physicians. "We cannot serve the poor patient in public hospitals."
Mohammed Sayed, a husky, congenial man, said he works a number of 24-hour shifts a month, which earns him an extra $10. Even before the rapid rise in inflation, he said, that was a maddeningly low sum.
His friend, Mohammed Wael Saad, a surgeon at Nile Hospital, said most Egyptians view doctors as singularly altruistic and find it odd that they would consider striking over financial matters.
"People think we are beyond money. But how can we live?" said Saad. "How can I give the best when I work long hours and earn as much as a nurse or a mill worker? Our salaries need to be commensurate with prosecutors'. They earn 2,000 pounds [about $365] a month. So, is it more important to put someone in jail or to save someone from dying?"
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.