After spearheading the rallies that toppled former President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s main protest group is locked in a stand-off with the country’s new military rulers testing its clout as a political force.
The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) gained widespread support during more than four months of protests and helped win concessions from the military council that took over from Bashir on April 11.
As the unionists and activists in the SPA try to chart a course to democracy, they are coming up against a powerful rival that has shown little sign of being willing to move aside for a civilian-led transition.
Frustrated by a lack of progress, the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), a broad coalition of opposition groups headed by the SPA, called for a campaign of civil disobedience to build up pressure on the military.
“We have all options open from now on,” Ahmed Rabie, an SPA member, told Reuters. “If the council insists on holding on to power, we are going to consider this a military coup and will escalate our tactics, peacefully.”
The SPA said such a campaign would focus on mass strikes, successful in previous uprisings in post-independence Sudan. Strikes called by the SPA before Bashir’s fall met with limited success, but workers may be less cowed following his removal.
It may also call for a boycott of non-essential goods and public services to starve government of tax revenue and intensify rallies and sit-ins.
The biggest ongoing sit-in, which began on April 6 outside the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, is the focal point of the uprising.
The Transitional Military Council (TMC) will not use force to end the sit-in. But the SPA could be undermined by manoeuvring due to lack of political experience.
“Politicking is starting. This is a terrain the professionals association might not be as well-equipped for as it seems,” said Sudanese analyst Magdi el-Gizouli.
To placate protesters the TMC replaced its first head after a day, dismissed senior allies of Bashir, announced anti-corruption measures and moved to restructure security and intelligence agencies.
Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Darfur, is in prison in Khartoum.
The DFCF wants a transitional body led by civilians to steer a four-year transition, the TMC it wants to retain overall control of any joint military and civilian sovereign council.
As talks between the two sides drag on the SPA accuses military leaders of expanding their power.
The TMC is open to more dialogue and said elections could be held after six months if there’s no agreement on an interim government – well ahead of the planned two-year transition.
The SPA’s civil disobedience could put pressure on the military council given Sudan’s economic vulnerability. The country is suffering from spiralling inflation and shortages of cash and basic goods and its TMC rivals have powerful and wealthy backers.
TMC leaders, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, have ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which promised Sudan $3 billion to support the central bank and provide fuel, wheat and medicine.
Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, controls the Rapid Support Forces, which fought in Darfur and are part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. They are also deployed across Khartoum.
“This is an army establishment and they don’t want to lose control,” said Sudanese writer and commentator Reem Abbas. “There are things at stake: resources, land, immunity for war crimes.”
The SPAwas formed in 2016 from unofficial parallel trade unions outside the state apparatus representing doctors, lawyers, journalists and other professions.
It was campaigning for higher wages when demonstrations against Bashir, triggered by a deepening economic crisis, spread across Sudan last December and propelled the SPA into the role of protest co-ordinator. It has expanded to include more than 20 unions.
The SPA’s non-political image was key to its success in ousting Bashir, said Rabie, a high school physics teacher from the Haj Yousif neighbourhood on the outskirts of Khartoum.
Despite its large following, the SPA says it will not become a political party. It has no leader or strict hierarchy and, until recently, operated largely underground.
That could leave a vacuum.
Under Bashir, opposition parties’ activities were limited and membership dwindled. Analysts say they still have much work to do to become effective political forces.
The opposition faces a challenge presenting a united front. The DFCF is made up of a wide range of political parties, civil society associations and armed groups from across Sudan and they have made conflicting statements about their approach to the negotiations.
Many protesters believe the SPA shouldn’t be negotiating with the military at all, chanting: “Civilian rule is the decision of the people.” The SPA sought to reassure them, saying it will act as a guarantor of the revolution and democracy during the transition.
“We always work hard to get democracy in this country and then we lose it,” said Rabie, jailed from January 4 until shortly after Bashir’s downfall. “We worked hard to get it, and, God willing, we can protect it.”