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AFRICA / Meet the SPA, the "ghost battalion" that organized the popular uprising in Sudan
Date of publication at Tlaxcala: 06/05/2019
Original: Ce « bataillon fantôme » qui a organisé l’insurrection populaire au Soudan

Meet the SPA, the "ghost battalion" that organized the popular uprising in Sudan

Sarra Majdoub سارة مجدوب

Translated by  Fausto Giudice Фаусто Джудиче فاوستو جيوديشي


The Sudanese Professionals Association was the secret driving force behind the Sudanese revolution. Its role will be decisive in the transition that has been outlined, in the face of the Transitional Military Council.

 The Sudanese Professionals Association (Tajamoo al-mihanyin al-sudaniyin) remains the mystery of the Sudanese revolution. Unknown to the general public and a majority of Sudanese, this organization remained confidential until the beginning of the protest movements in December 2018. The revolution found its driving force in this " alliance body of independent professionals", a nebulous group of trade unions and horizontal committees whose internal organisation remains unknown, as well as the identity and political sensitivity of its members. To circumvent repression and arrests, this strategy was vital.


 A carefully prepared movement

 Created in 2013 following a protest movement heavily repressed by the regime, the SPA played an important role after August 2018 through its involvement in the wage battle against the backdrop of the economic crisis. It reappeared at the end of December with the beginning of the uprising, after the conflagration of the workers' town of Atbara in the north of the country on 19 December. 

 Mohamed Naji al-Assam, a leading member of the SPA, speaks to the media on 30 April. Photo ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Naji al-Assam’s frail face appeared on the night of December 31 on a video. He is one of the few members of the "professionals" who publicly display themselves as such. He then expressed the desire to bring down the regime, denouncing the repression of demonstrators and highlighting the importance of women, who were very active in the mobilizations. He reads the Call for Freedom and Change, which brings together the movement's first clear demands: the dismissal of the president, the formation of a transitional civilian government...

Described as a "ghost battalion" by the future deposed president Omar Al-Bashir in February 2019, the SPA has become a central actor, succeeding in aggregating, formulating, claiming and gradually attracting a large audience. It exerts an influence on mobilizations and protest movements through appeals relayed at a sustained pace. At a rate of at least three marches per week, it adds itself to the general exasperation that reactivates the uprisings of January 2018 that were not completed. Contradicting most of the ultra-spontaneist theses of a "bread and fuel oil" uprising that allegedly occurred "suddenly" at the end of December.

It is worth recalling the "how" of the insurgency, as well as the attraction of these "masked entrepreneurs" of the mobilization on a large number of Sudanese. They have demonstrated a know-how that has allowed them to draw on a repertoire of constantly renewed actions, thus maintaining the momentum of the movement across the country. Launching, for example, civil disobedience actions (on 13 March), marches and rallies that refer to political themes familiar to the Sudanese: the situation of women, political prisoners, victims of war, unemployed, displaced and exiled people, bread and dignity, social justice, life on the margins of the hinterland, etc. They are trying to decentralize the movement outside Khartoum, including with the "withdrawal marches" on 24 January in several cities and provinces of the country: Al-Fasher in North Darfur, Kassala in the east of the country and Al-Obeid in Northe Kordofan. In February, they also support the mobilization of port workers in Port Sudan against the privatization of the sector.


Khartoum by night

Nightly mobilizations

They launched the first major march on the presidential palace on December 25, followed by the major "deliverance" marches in January and February, the "Million March of April 6" in reference to the famous April 6, 1985 march that brought down President Jaafar Nimeiry (1969-1985). And there is the sit-in in front of the army headquarters decided as a last resort that led to the dismissal of Omar Al-Bashir and maintained the mobilization in its radical opposition to the Transitional Military Council and its figures.

The effectiveness of the SPA is also reflected in the nightly mobilizations in the districts of Khartoum, Omdurman and other cities, reinforced by the neighbourhood resistance committees that appeared in December 2017 (not to be confused with the neighbourhood popular committees, which are tools for the regime to watch  and comb people locally). The resistance committees have improvised themselves as "peaceful vigilantes", holding night rallies, counting the damage caused by the repression and preventing infiltration attempts.

"Ghostwriters" of the uprising

The professionals' slogans can be considered as a key element of the insurrection, with the now famous "tasgot bas"! " (let it fall!) before the fall of Al-Bashir and "lam tasgot baad! " (he still hasn't fallen!) after the taking over by the Transitional Military Council. The lyricism of these calls and their extreme stylisation, sometimes in Arabic, sometimes in dialect or urban slang - randook - makes them singular.

The ghostwriters who write these calls remain the best kept secret in Khartoum and Sudan. Along with their aesthetics and the pictorial identity of their posters, they were able to transcend the common imagination of the insurgents at different times during the protest. Undeniably heterogeneous, some of the demonstrators and actors in the movement have so far declared themselves "represented" by this unidentified political object. "The SPA Represents Me" becomes the rallying word for many protesters.

What is the reason for this consent? By asking the question head-on in several interviews with demonstrators in Khartoum between 10 and 17 April, we obtain a variety of answers: some praise their clarity while others, more pragmatic, stress their usefulness in bringing down the regime still in place and the enclaves of the kizans (a slang term for the regime's henchmen); just like the dismantling of the country's complex security machinery: the Popular Defence Forces, the Rapid Support Forces (paramilitaries), the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the country's famous intelligence and security service; and the indictment of senior officials of the regime.

For F., 29 years old and from Niyala (Darfur), the "professionals" represent him politically only in terms of "demands and modalities of action, but no more", because they remain associated with the centre and do not manage to fully represent the margins, although the slogan "The whole country is Darfur" was carried by them. According to F., this remains to be proven.

 Khartoum, 22 April 2019: SPA activists prepare meals for participants in the permanent sit-in outside army headquarters. Photo Stringer/EPA-EFE

Lost in transition?

It is clear that for most of the interviewees, the "professionals" have undeniably brought about another way of doing things and undoing the political field in Sudan, which has not been done for thirty years, but to say that it is a political avant-garde as some commentators claim.... Y., a young activist, is categorical: talking about political vanguard is a bit "old school", even completely "sixties". No, it's not an avant-garde, according to him: "They're just really different. "It is a political body that very quickly managed to bypass, or even destroy, some of the traditional "hard bodies", i.e. the names of the political scene and other opposition dinosaurs. But also the other armed factions, historically trapped in the compromise and endless negotiations with the regime and which recently joined the game of the Transitional Military Council, from Khartoum and the United Arab Emirates, with the roadmap defined in Abu Dhabi of the armed revolutionary front forces in the presence of several representatives of armed groups and fronts in Sudan.

On Sunday, April 21, the SPA declared the suspension of dialogue and negotiation with the Transitional Military Council, whose legitimacy it now challenges, categorically refusing any compromise with men who only confirm the confiscatory nature of the regime. It also called for the resumption of a new mobilization schedule based solely on the legitimacy of the street. This shows to what extent the entry into visibility of "professionals" and their inclusion in the public space after Al-Bashir's dismissal remains a major challenge.

They demand the creation of a transitional civilian government. The list of members of this government was supposed to be made public on Thursday, April 25, but had to be postponed.

Young professional member Naji al-Assam says that this sequence of the revolution is probably the most "sensitive and dangerous" of the entire movement and mobilizations, given the "manoeuvres of the military council, which is clearly trying to buy time". He explains that "there have been some victories, but the real battles continue" in a video posted on Sunday, April 21.

Saturday 27 April marked the resumption of a new phase of negotiations with the Transitional Military Council (and its Political Committee after a series of resignations, including that of its disputed President Omar Zinelabidine), which began on the night of 25 April in a call for "more transparency" and "working together for a genuine democratic transition" in a climate of "mutual trust". The following meetings took place on Sunday and Monday, April 28 and 29, the SPA assures in a statement issued on Sunday morning that the "real custodians of power are the Sudanese men and women" and that they would remain constant in their position for a four-year transitional civilian power composed of "a national civilian transition council with limited military representation, a parliament and a meritocratic civilian government. » 

 Mohammed al-Amin Abdel Aziz, one of the spokespersons for the SPA

A past in the present

Al-Mihaniyin could be seen as a sign of a "past in the present": a survival that refers to two similar political events that occurred in circumstances of "insurrectional reversal" in 1964 and 1985. Like the October 1964 Revolutionary Committees Front (jabhat al-hayaat al-thawriya), it is once again a gathering of professional bodies that emerged in the aftermath of the 1964 uprising, launching general strikes in several cities including Khartoum and Atbara, coupled with a broad movement of civil disobedience and negotiations that ended General Ibrahim Abboud's military regime and instituted a weakened "civil" power that would lead to the 1969 coup.

The March-April 1985 union rally, which played a similar role as protest entrepreneurs and as the central driving force behind the fall of Jaafar Nimeiry, was another example. Trapped by internal dissension, the 1985 rally (allied with other opposition political forces) failed to hold its own against the military government of the time, which maintained its monopoly.

These two "forefathers" managed to remove two regimes and could not finally obtain anything but an eternal return to the same one: an uprising, followed by a new regime, followed by a military coup. Will the SPA be able to ward off this indelible law of politics in Sudan: everything changes so that nothing changes, under the military umlbrella? Will the original spirit of the "professionals" succeed in protecting themselves from the dangers of the movement's exhaustion? Will they be the guardians of the "transition"? Their survival over time will be crucial. Will they end up dissolving within several autonomous trade union bodies? Will they confine themselves to the role played by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) after the fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011? Will they mutate into vigils of Sudanese political life, haloed with their revolutionary credit? Or, as the most pessimistic predict, will the movement be reduced to a set of revolutionary songs, slogans and incantations?


Courtesy of Tlaxcala
Publication date of original article: 30/04/2019
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Tags: Sudanese professionals associationSudanese revolutionArab 2.0 RevolutionsLogical revoltsSudan

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