(Bloomberg) -- By day, they could be examining patients, calculating tax returns or teaching Khartoum’s schoolchildren. In their free time, they’re part of a clandestine group helping organize Sudan’s biggest protests in decades -- and authorities are desperately hunting them down.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, whose membership is mostly secret, has become a major thorn in the side of President Omar al-Bashir. For the long-time leader facing almost two months of nationwide demonstrations calling for his resignation, it may be an uncomfortable reminder of the firebrand trade unions that helped oust his predecessors in 1964 and 1985.
With Sudan mired in economic chaos and popular discontent rising, “it was clear to the SPA’s leadership that it was high time to organize the components of the group and widen it to lead a peaceful uprising,” said Mohamed al-Asbat Ahmed, a spokesman who’s based in France. He estimates the union’s support at as many as half a million people.
Unrest that began December in Africa’s third-biggest country by area and has claimed dozens of lives is the most serious threat to al-Bashir’s rule since he seized power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989. Stirring echoes of the 2011 Arab Spring, its causes include an economic crisis that’s hitting the middle classes and the poor alike. The currency has plunged 37 percent against the dollar over the past year, according to central bank data, lenders are running out of cash and inflation has topped 70 percent.
The SPA, which brings together professions including teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers and journalists, was formed in 2012, but fears of a security crackdown meant it only built its leadership structure about four years later, according to spokesman Ahmed, a 50-year-old former newspaper editor.
Before the current protests, the SPA worked to encourage public discussions about Sudan’s economic conditions, in mid-2018 publishing a study on wages and living costs, he said. These days, the group’s Twitter account urges demonstrations to bring about the fall of the government and announces the deaths and arrests of protesters.
Unsurprisingly, Sudanese authorities single the SPA out as a threat. Addressing parliament in early January, Interior Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman declared it illegal and vowed to crack down on its activities. Amnesty International, which accuses security forces of a “deadly onslaught,” says more than 40 people have been killed in the protests since mid-December. The government puts the toll at 30.
One of the few identified members in Sudan -- Mohamed Yossef al-Mustafa, a former state minister for labor who didn’t belong to the ruling party -- was arrested and then freed in January. A second, local spokesman Mohammed Nagi Alasam, is in custody.
Al-Bashir’s reaction to the protests has veered from contempt to attempted conciliation. While maintaining that 2020’s elections are the only path to political change, the 75-year-old has vowed to review some contentious laws and increase financial grants for youth programs.
A chairman at the state-backed council of unions, Al-Wasila Manofali, said the SPA isn’t registered as a labor organization and will face legal action for claiming to represent Sudanese professionals.
The SPA “are playing politics and using the economic crisis in order to lead the streets,” he said. “They are supposed to be concerned only with the demands and rights of their professions.”
In its adoption of a political role, the SPA is following a well-worn path for labor movements in Sudan, which saw several bouts of upheaval in the first three decades after independence in 1956.
In 1964, a workers coalition mobilized a general strike that brought an end to the military government of President Ibrahim Abboud; in 1985, a similar group took part in industrial action that prompted a coup against President Gaafar al-Nimeiri, who had taken the same route to power 16 years before.
“The SPA is to a large degree a continuation of this tradition, but has so far not been able to transform agitation into trade union gains” and cultivate links outside middle-class professionals, said Magdi el-Gizouli, a fellow with the Rift Valley Institute, a Kenya-based research group.
Its popularity “is greater among the urban middle class and its organization and political language and demands are a reflection of middle-class aspirations,” he said. “Whether the SPA is capable of leading the protest movement to fruition is another issue.”
(Updates with currency depreciation in paragraph before Broad Coalition subheadline.)
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