- When the Sudanese people trooped to the streets in Dec. 2018, frustrated by the country’s worsening economy, physicians were at the frontlines in ensuring those grievances led to broader political reforms.
When Mohammed Nagi Alassam enrolled in medical school, it would have been hard to imagine him as one of the faces of a revolution that would years later, change the course of his country.
Sudan has huddled under the boots of dictators for many years. Backed by Islamists, in 1989, Omar al-Bashir, then a 45-year-old rising star in the military, led other officers to topple the democratically elected government. He called it the ‘revolution of national salvation’ and claimed he was saving the country from ‘rotten political parties’. He was at the helm of what is widely recognised as a totalitarian government even though he became president in 1993 and was re-elected into office multiple times. His administration was characterised by corruption, authoritarian rule, genocide, economic hardship, and allegations of supporting terror groups. Twenty years in, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest over war crimes committed in his handling of the insurgency in Darfur — the first of such issued for a sitting head of state.
Finally, in April 2019, al-Bashir’s watch in office stopped ticking. The people had had enough and the military, which had propped him into power, withdrew its support.
Protests had erupted the previous December over the tripling prices of bread and other harsh economic developments. As usual, the authorities responded with an iron fist, killing and teargassing demonstrators, cutting off internet access, making arrests, spreading disinformation, and imposing curfews. But there was a level of coordination that made these protests different from their predecessors. Much of that was thanks to the efforts of Sudanese doctors.
Alassam believes the seeds of revolution were sown in 2016. It was the year the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD) was formed as a parallel union to the state-regulated Sudanese Doctors Union. That November, the committee embarked on an industrial action that affected at least 46 hospitals and demanded better work conditions for healthcare workers. The government arrested striking doctors, including former union chairman Dr Hassan Karrar Mamoun who they accused of forming an illegal body. “There was a great shortage of staff and huge pressure from patients and their relatives who thought that this shortage was because doctors neglected their duties or didn’t care enough,” explained Dr Montasir Bashir, one of those who led the strike. “It wasn’t true. All the budget was spent on the presidential militia instead.”
Two years later, after the protests started, CCSD went on strike again and, this time, didn’t call it off until after 207 days, making it the longest physicians’ strike in Sudanese history.
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