Editor’s note: This article is part of a package based on research by Al-Fanar Media into job benefits and protections for professors at universities in the Arab world. For an overview of the findings, see “Lacking Job Security and Benefits, Many Arab Professors Lose Interest in Academia.”
At the beginning of this academic year, professors at the University of Khartoum, Sudan’s largest public university, elected an independent union council with representatives from each college in the university. A higher nationwide council including the presidents of each university union will be elected later.
“I have a complex feeling, that combines happiness with fear of the responsibility to go through the new experience,” Manal Amer, secretary-general of the new union council at the University of Khartoum, said in a telephone interview.
“We have suffered from unions loyal to the former political regime, which used to appoint its council from among its loyalists, which turned them into tools of oppression and not support agencies,” said Amer, who is a professor in the Faculty of Science.
The politically appointed unions established during former president Omar Al-Bashir’s rule were disbanded after he was overthrown amid popular protests in April 2019. The unions’ financial assets were seized by the transitional government headed by Abdalla Hamdok, pending a review of the regulations governing unions and their conformity with democracy and independence.
Worries About Unions’ Independence
Some academics say the lack of independent financial support for the new unions may reopen the door for the government to interfere in the unions’ work.
“Government financial support will weaken the independence of unions and make them vulnerable to political interference and manipulation,” Babaker Hamad Abbas, who is also a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Khartoum, said in a telephone interview.
Union independence requires relying only on members’ subscriptions, he said, adding that union members should not hold administrative positions at the university.
Amer said she did not object to conditional government support while the union looked for other sources.
“We have suffered from unions loyal to the former political regime, which used to appoint its council from among its loyalists, which turned them into tools of oppression and not support agencies.”Manal Amer
A professor and secretary-general of the new union council at the University of Khartoum
“We seek to provide independent sources through financial contributions from members, as well as the management and property of the university’s assets for investment purposes,” she said.
Abdul Rahman Mohamed Khair, a professor of education fundamentals in the Faculty of Education at the University of Bahri, said “government support was “a necessity” but should be tied to “specific budgets that guarantee the continuity of the unions’ work.”
In a telephone interview, Khair said he believed that the new government “supports the democratic choice and welcomes the formation of elected unions, and it will also work to provide financial support unless faced with an emergency situation.”
The new unions also face legislative difficulties due to official opposition to a proposal in a draft law, submitted by a committee of professors from various universities, to restrict union membership to professors.
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Tawfiq Ahmed Al Jak Abdullah, a professor in the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences at Alzaiem Alazhari University, in Khartoum North, explained in a telephone interview that the former regime used to place all university employees, including professors, nonacademic workers, technicians, and even security guards, in one union for political reasons, so as to control them through a single committee with broad powers. (See a related article, “Sudan’s Power-Sharing Deal Could Exclude Those Who Made It Possible.”)
“The Ministry of Labor, the body entrusted with approving the trade union law in Sudan, did not welcome the draft law that we initially submitted, but it was forced under pressure from the various union gatherings to receive it, and it is in the process of approval,” said Abdullah, who is also secretary-general of the Facilitative Committee of the Professors’ Union at Alzaiem Alazhari.
Developing Organizational Rules
Amer became the first woman to head the union council at the University of Khartoum after winning an election in February this year in which 859 academics representing 34 academic institutes and colleges participated, with a voter turnout of 48 percent.
“The government today is a revolutionary government and is completely different from its predecessors, which makes the issue of interfering or employing union work for political purposes unacceptable and impossible.”Abdul Rahman Mohamed Khair
ِA professor of education fundamentals at the University of Bahri
“We are working on arranging the internal situation and enacting internal regulations to organize union work at the university to ensure the improvement of the professors’ conditions and the development of the educational process,” she said.
The union council is made up of 84 elected members. Its priorities are to update the organizing regulations, tackle the problem of accommodation for professors and students, prepare plans for training researchers, and fight for higher wages and prompt payment. But it has also taken up political issues and in a statement it condemned the security forces’ use of armed force against demonstrators at a protest in May, which left at least two people dead.
The draft of the new system defines rules including the mechanisms for holding elections and selecting members of the committee, the terms of reference of the secretary-general and financial manager, the term of the council, and the conditions for convening a general assembly.
The independence of public universities and a system for the promotion and dismissal of professors without reference to their political loyalty are also high among the demands of professors. (See a related article, “Sudan’s Revolution, Phase 2: Universities Seek Independence.”)
But Khair, at the University of Bahri, acknowledged that such questions cannot be resolved immediately.
“The government today is a revolutionary government and is completely different from its predecessors,” he said, “which makes the issue of interfering or employing union work for political purposes unacceptable and impossible.”