For decades, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has kept dissenting voices low and opposition groups in disarray creating a political vacuum that a group of professionals has recently rushed to fill.
Public anger against worsening economic hardship and deteriorating living conditions has pushed doctors, engineers and university professors to come together under the umbrella of the “Sudanese Professionals Association” and lead nationwide calls for Bashir to step down.
Although the association remains unknown to many, its calls have echoed across the country bringing thousands of protesters onto the streets, including in the capital Khartoum.
The protests were initially triggered by the tripling of bread prices. But they have swiftly evolved into deadly confrontations with the security forces.
“The Sudanese scene has been lacking a leader on political, economic, security and social levels,” an SPA spokesman Mohamed Youssef al-Mustafa told AFP, speaking from Khartoum.
Sudan has about 100 political parties, but none have sought to steer the protest movement.
So the association has sought to organise protests. But in the end, Mustafa says, “it’s the people who lead.”
– No structure –
It started when back in 2012, in response to new laws restricting the freedom of political parties, a group of 200 professors at the University of Khartoum formed a group, prompting other professionals in the capital to form similar gatherings, Mustafa says.
Groups of veterinarians, media workers, pharmacists, teachers, lawyers and others were later created making up the main eight separate gatherings of the Sudanese Professionals Association by 2016.
“Now every city in Sudan has a gathering of professionals,” Mustafa said.
Unlike political parties, SPA has no organisational structure and holds no records of the number of its members, he added.
“It’s not recognised by the government, but its setup is in line with Article 40 of the constitution,” he said.
The article stipulates “the right of peaceful assembly” as well as the “freedom of association” including forming and belonging to political parties, associations, trade unions and professional federations.
SPA has for years been concerned with resolving the issues of the professionals, gathered under its umbrella.
But last month, it took on a more political role as the protests swelled, strengthening the spirit of revolt, announcing schedules for demonstrations and organising marches on the presidential palace.
It has even proposed a plan to form a transitional government if Bashir quits.
And on Friday, the country’s main opposition leader and former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi threw his support behind the demonstrators.
“This regime has to go immediately,” Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party, told hundreds of worshippers at a mosque in Omdurman.
“A period of transition will come soon… we are supporting this (protest) movement,” Mahdi said, adding more than 50 people have been killed in the protests.
Officials say 30 people have died in the protests, while rights groups have put the death toll at more than 40.
“The way protesters follow this group is strange,” said Sudanese journalist Faisal Mohamed Saleh, pointing out that the protests always start exactly at the time designated by the group.
“It’s an achievement for this group, considering that the protesters don’t even know who the main leaders of this association are. Protesters just trust them.”
– ‘Post-Bashir’ plan –
But Mustafa dismissed plans that SPA would turn into a political party.
“There is no thought of turning the professional entity into a political party,” he said, adding many members already belong to some political parties.
But since December 19, the group has joined forces with Bashir’s main opponents.
Opposition groups including the National Consensus Forces Alliance and Nidaa al-Sudan have signed a document with regime change being the main objective.
It also outlines a post-Bashir plan including rebuilding Sudan’s justice system and halting the country’s dire economic decline.
Mohamed al-Asbat, another SPA spokesman living in Paris, says the association will continue to use peaceful means to bring about political change.
“The reason people are flocking to us it the association’s ability to maintain peacefulness and use of soft communication,” he said.