How an illegal Sudanese union became the biggest threat to Omar Al Bashir’s 29-year reign

The Sudanese Professionals Association: From fighting for minimum wage to calling for regime change

Sudanese demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest in Khartoum, Sudan January 25, 2019. Picture taken January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
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Ten years ago, Mohamed Yousif Ahmed Al Mustafa was a state labour minister. Today, he is a wanted man.

As a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the outlawed umbrella group of unions currently leading protests calling on President Omar Al Bashir to step down, Dr Al Mustafa has been arrested and released twice already in recent weeks. The other spokesman in Sudan, 28-year-old Dr Mohamed Nagi Al Asam, has remained in detention since January 4.

Other than two other spokespersons living in exile overseas, the membership of the SPA is a closely guarded secret, and with good reason.

The protests led by the SPA represent one of the biggest challenges to Mr Al Bashir’s 29-year rule, and the government is doing all it can to crush the protests and identify and arrest SPA members.

While there are about 100 political parties in Sudan, the SPA was the first body to call for protests in Khartoum. And despite the arrests, the secretive body continues to lead the demonstrations, meaning Sudan’s political future may rest in its hands.

When the government cut subsidies last December, prices of bread doubled overnight. Ordinary Sudanese, frustrated at the rising cost of basic food items, were outraged. But with political opposition and unions neutered after years of Mr Al Bashir consolidating power, speaking out meant persecution.

Since taking power in a military coup in 1989, Mr Al Bashir has demonstrated a single-minded focus on clinging to power. Banning trade unions was at the lesser end of his authoritarianism. He also banned political parties and dissolved parliament, while purging and even executing those accused of opposing him.

He remains the only sitting head of state wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges stemming from the Darfur conflict. And since the South broke away in 2011, taking with it three-quarters of Sudan’s oil revenues, the economy has collapsed, with inflation rising to 69 per cent last month and food items tripling in price.

Despite the economic hardship, the government has continued to neglect the public sector. Just five per cent of last year’s budget was allocated to education and healthcare. Hospitals meanwhile have faced both a shortage of medicine and of doctors.

Earlier dissatisfaction with the state of Sudan’s public health service led doctors to revive the banned Sudanese Doctors Syndicate in 2012. Unregistered and unrecognised by the government, it has nonetheless played a formative role in the SPA alongside other professionals.

SPA spokesman Dr Al Mustafa explains the formation of the association outside his office at the University of Khartoum where he has been teaching anthropology off and on since 1977.

His office could be bugged, he believes, and he expects to be arrested again at any time. His release earlier this month after being detained at a protest was only due to an outcry from other professors, he believes.

“[In 2012,] we formed a union for university lecturers in Sudan,” he said. “But our union was not enough to create change, we started to look at other professional bodies.”

They began holding meetings with the doctors syndicate and the teachers’ committee. By January 2014, the SPA was formed with a plan to advocate for a living wage for families and a better work environment.

Earlier this year, the SPA estimated that a family of five would need 8,663 Sudanese pounds (Dh670) to survive for a month without luxuries. The current minimum wage in Sudan is just 423 Sudanese pounds (Dh33).

When the first protests against the rising cost of living broke out on December 19 in Atbara, 320 kilometres down the Nile from Khartoum, the SPA saw a chance to highlight their demands for an increased minimum wage.

But seeing the anger of the demonstrators, the SPA changed its approach. “We could not just ask for lifting the minimum wage, we listened to the protesters and asked for regime change,” said Dr Sarah Abdeljaleel, a spokesperson for the SPA based in the United Kingdom.

When the SPA published a statement calling people to take to the streets in central Khartoum, many had never heard of the organisation, but thousands responded to the call.

“This revolution is a result of an accumulation of historical injustices suffered by different communities, people were ready to take to the streets, but they wanted leadership and the association came at the right time with the right message,” said Amjed Farid, a member of the Sudanese Doctors Syndicate.

The opposition political parties were quiet for a few days, but by early January, they united and joined the calls for regime-change. But people on the ground were responding to the SPA and not the political parties.

One university graduate told The National she supported the SPA's calls because they were not acting out of self-interest. "They are just people – like me – who want this regime gone because it is unable to improve our daily existence."

Sudan’s professional classes meanwhile say it is time for the entrenched old guard to step aside. “Sudanese people are tired of the failures of the old political elite, there was political fatigue after decades of [political] parties not… providing a concrete solution to the problems of Sudan,” said Dr Farid.

After more than 40 days of protests across 15 of Sudan’s 18 states, the country is at a standstill. Pharmacists and other medical professionals are on strike, doctors are only treating emergency cases, engineers have halted construction on building sites. As demonstrations continue, at least 40 protesters have been killed by security forces, rights groups say. The government says it has arrested 816 protesters, though rights group say the figure is much higher.

President Al Bashir has called the protesters saboteurs and blamed “infiltrators” for killing protesters. He has told those calling on him to step down to wait for next year’s elections, in which he still plans to contest after modifying the constitution to allow him another term.

The crackdown on dissent continues. Social media platforms have been blocked from the first week of protests and can only be accessed by using a virtual private network – an encrypted connection that hides a user’s location and identity. Security forces have detained several journalists and revoked accreditation for foreign correspondents from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

In light of the attempts by security forces to shut down the SPA, its members in Sudan are using encrypted communications. It continues to call for protests, adapting its strategies to try and stay ahead of security forces. The latest is to hold protests at night.

As Sudan’s professional classes continue calling for the president to step down, the ongoing protests are a constant reminder of why they are on the frontlines of the movement.

As Dr Farid explained: “As doctors, we have a moral duty to save lives, but in this collapsing system, we can’t even be doctors if we operate in hospitals that don’t even have oxygen and insulin.”