Raed Arafat in action.

Raed Arafat: A reluctant rebel

The revolt currently shaking Bucharest is inspired by Raed Arafat, a doctor of Palestinian origin who protested against the privatisation of the country's health system.

Published on 18 January 2012 at 16:12
Raed Arafat in action.

If Raed Arafat has always been popular among Romanians, it is undoubtedly because they have always felt close to this Palestinian from Syria who founded the Emergency Mobile Reanimation and Extraction Service or SMURD.

Born in Damascus in 1964, Raed Arafat discovered a passion for "first aid" at the age of 14. Still in high school, he worked with a city hospital and he created the first emergency team which included some of his colleagues. Medicine, at first a simple passion, would become a professional goal. His father wanted him to attend Polytechnic but Raed had sworn "to become either a doctor or a garbage collector".

He came to Romania aged 16 and a half, because, he says, "it is the country that responded the most quickly to my request for admission to university [the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu operated a system which allowed residents of Arab countries to study in Romania]. "I found out later that I was also admitted in Greece and in the United States, but my parents didn't tell me about the American response out of fear that I would go over there and never come back. They hoped to see me return from Romania," he explains.

"Enemy of health reform"

In 1989, after obtaining his diploma, he had the chance to go to France. But in December, because of the revolution which had just broken out in Romania, the delivery of visas became backlogged and Arafat stayed in Bucharest. Twenty years after founding the SMURD in 1991, Arafat thinks that emergency services have changed in Romania. "Now," he says, "firefighters play an essential role in emergency situations. This is the same system as in most of the EU countries. Fire fighters, and their military mentality, have played an important role in the development of the Romanian system".

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His first emergency team used his private car until a former colleague from his university days, then working in Germany, raised some funds and aid to buy a used ambulance which was donated to SMURD. This was followed by some donations from the Norwegian Red Cross.

Raed Arafat has not given up his medical practice. To this day, he even takes shifts of helicopter guard duty. He's often heard comments behind his back such as, "Oh, here comes the Arab to teach us medicine!", but, as he says himself, "This Arab learned medicine in Romania; I am a product of Romania!"

On January 12, Arafat, who was named undersecretary for health in 2007, became an "enemy of health reform," as he was dubbed by President Traian Băsescu, speaking live via telephone in a television show in which Arafat denounced the use of public financing for private health initiatives. Arafat also spoke against the reform of the SMURD and against the privatisation of public hospitals. He resigned immediately after Băsescu's telephone call on the air, live. [He was later reinstated to the ministry, see box below].

Băsescu does not have the confidence of Romanians

The privatisation of public health is worth €4.5 billion with an additional €1.5 billion expected from the creation of private insurance companies and from the sale of public holdings. Most Romanians fear that the situation is reaching a point at which health care will no longer be an obligation for the state and death will be the only outcome for the destitute without insurance. Others suggest that the privatisation of hospitals and the introduction of private insurance plans will open up a lucrative business from which entrepreneurs and politicians close to the centre of power will benefit.

Băsescu ended up asking the government of Prime Minister Emil Boc to withdraw its health reform proposal, claiming that "no one within the system wants change. And too few outside the system are favourable to it. The hospitals don't want change, the family doctors don't want change, the emergency service doesn't want change".

Raed Arafat is perhaps not the white knight portrayed by the press these last few days. Yet, unlike him, Traian Băsescu does not have the confidence of Romanians. The politician, while confronting a medical expert, prefers to trust his health to Viennese doctors. But the final blow, in matters of image, came from those considered supporters of Băsescu, such as his own under-secretary.

As noted by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, president of the Romanian Academic Society think-tank, "the law was conceived in an anti-democratic and unprofessional manner. The state should promote capable people like Arafat rather than sacking them".

Hot off the press

Resignation and reinstatement

"The president's second compromise," headlines Romanian daily Adevărul after President Traian Băsescu agreed both to withdraw his health reform programme and to ask Health under-secretary Raed Arafat to withdraw his resignation. On January 17, five days after having left his post at the health ministry with a bang, the creator of the country's emergency health services agreed to be reinstated. He thus responded to the calls of the head of state and of the prime minister who hoped to bring to a halt the demonstrations that have shaken the country since Arafat's resignation. The undersecretary has been appointed to a committee of experts charged with devising new health reform proposals.

"No one in Romania is more popular than he is," Adevărul notes, for whom Arafat could have asked for much more than just his undersecretary's portfolio. "He could have asked to be health minister because he has the support of the people, which is worth more than that of the politicians at the moment". However, the paper warns, Arafat's return to government will not put an end to the demonstrations because his sympathisers are "now demanding something other than the simple satisfaction of Arafat's demands."


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