Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
Since the movement that has come to be known as the “Sudan Uprising” ignited in December 2018, little has been heard or seen of Omar al-Bashir, the man who ruled the country with an iron fist for almost 30 years. On April 11, after four months of ever-larger protests, he was deposed in a bloodless coup. At first the regime said little about his location, though reports suggested that he was being held in the presidential palace in Khartoum. Rumors circulated that Bashir negotiated his own exit with former Defense Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, the leader of the coup, to ensure that he would not be sent to the International Criminal Court. But whatever guarantees Bashir extracted proved short-lived: under pressure from protesters, the military ejected Ibn Auf after only one day in power and replaced him with Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan.
The new regime has reportedly moved Bashir to Kobar prison, a notorious maximum-security facility in Khartoum. Thousands of political prisoners were detained and tortured at Kobar during Bashir’s long reign of terror. Whether his tenure there will match the length frequently doled out to his political opponents is unclear; Bashir’s future, like that of the country, remains opaque.
The uncertainty surrounding Bashir since he was toppled is, in a way, expected. Bashir remains one of the most inscrutable dictators felled during Africa’s long third wave of protest, which began around 2008, crested in 2011, and gained renewed strength in just the past two years. Unlike Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the former president of Algeria who was overthrown just weeks before Bashir and with whom he is forever fused in the popular imagination, Bashir never inspired loyalty within Sudan. Nor did the international community view him as much of a leader, even though he clung to power for so long.
Bashir’s ideological inconsistency and willingness to forge opportunistic partnerships allowed him to remain in power by exploiting the broader crisis of leadership and nationalism in Sudan.
Bashir’s inscrutability was partly manufactured. He spoke fluent English, for example, but never gave interviews to the English press. Being inscrutable was a strategy that helped Bashir secure his rule in a country long defined by its divisions. His ideological inconsistency and willingness to forge opportunistic partnerships allowed him to remain in power by exploiting the broader crisis of leadership and nationalism in Sudan. His legacy in a country in which few leaders are untarnished by their associations with Bashir raises questions about how this almost uniformly reviled figure should be handled amid the uncertainty and joy of his departure. In other words, what happens to Bashir has consequences for the future of Sudan itself.
Official biographies and political obituaries of Bashir converge around a few basic facts. He was born to a humble Bedouin farming family in the country’s riverine north before entering the military and eventually rising to the rank of commander. But beyond that, precious little is known about his personal life, and what is known is hard to reconcile with his public persona. Not for him the ostentatious trappings of Africa’s other dictators, for example, although he presided over a regime known for its corruption and amassed a personal fortune rumored to be in the billions. Despite his well-earned reputation as a ruthless génocidaire, he is a devoted family man (he doesn’t have any children of his own but helped raise his second wife’s children). Though he ruled Sudan for three decades, few Sudanese are mourning his departure—not even those who benefited from his largess, such as the military and the country’s narrow economic elite.
Bashir is not the first Sudanese military ruler to be overthrown by a popular uprising. Sudan’s previous military ruler, Gaafar al-Nimeiri, suffered the same fate in 1985. During his 14 years in power, Nimeiri vacillated between socialism and pan-Arabism before settling on Islamism as the best ideology to ensure his hold on power. He embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and imposed sharia law—decisions that led to widespread unrest and reignited the war in the south, which eventually cleaved the country in two in 2011.
Like Nimeiri, Bashir arrived on the political scene directly from the military. After a four-year interlude of civilian rule, Bashir seized power in 1989, aligning his regime with the populist Islamist political leader Hassan al-Turabi. For the next decade, both internal and external observers considered the wily Turabi, who earned a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, to be the puppet master pulling Bashir’s strings. Under his influence, the regime worked to erase Sudan’s religious and ethnic diversity with a top-down—and widely resented—program of Arabization and Islamization. But Turabi’s friendliness toward Islamist leaders, including Osama bin Laden, sowed discord internally while transforming the country into an international pariah. Hoping to improve his country’s standing, Bashir negotiated secretly with officials in the United States, who warned him against continuing to support Islamic radicalism. Bashir, ever the survivor, broke from Turabi in 2000 and had him arrested.
The spotlight then shifted not to Bashir but to Ali Osman Taha, a former foreign minister and then the country’s first vice president. A civilian leader of the Islamist movement, Taha sided with Bashir after Bashir broke with Turabi. Knowledgeable observers viewed Taha as “the real power in Khartoum.” He was responsible for overseeing the brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur that led to more than 200,000 civilian deaths. Taha personally negotiated the comprehensive peace agreement that ended Sudan’s civil war with the southern leader, John Garang, in 2005. At the peace ceremony in Khartoum, Taha, and not Bashir, signed the agreement on behalf of the north.
And yet it was for Bashir alone that the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants in 2009 and 2010 for “genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” Despite his centrality to the Darfur campaign, Taha was never charged. Rumors circulated among regional actors that Taha was making moves to replace Bashir as president, according to reports released by WikiLeaks. But Bashir again successfully displaced his rival by demoting him during a 2013 cabinet reshuffle. The departure of South Sudan and, with it, the political and military threat the southern rebellion posed further cemented Bashir’s position. He confronted no other major challenge to his power for the better part of a decade—until the protest movement that deposed him in April.
In the midst of today’s tense standoff—between military rulers loath to cede power and protesters still pushing for an immediate civilian-led transition—the question of what, exactly, to do with Bashir may seem a distraction. But to ignore the issue could incur long-term consequences. Twice before, Sudan has failed to translate a popular revolution into an enduring democracy. The core problem has always been the country’s inability to craft an inclusive national identity, in the absence of which political elites have exploited ethnic and religious divisions to secure their rule. Even today’s protest movement, which is broad based and diverse, struggles to advance a national vision beyond replacing the military with a civilian-led government.
How the new regime handles Bashir can serve or undermine the goal of generating a national sense of purpose. Many international observers have called for the new regime to turn the ex-ruler over to the ICC to face prosecution. But such prosecutions are incorrigibly inefficient, and the spectacle of Bashir obstructing efforts to expose his regime’s wrongdoing will hardly salve the country’s trauma. Furthermore, the ICC indictment is limited to actions in Darfur more than a decade ago and does not address any of the regime’s misbehaviors in places such as the Nuba Mountains, where it bombed villagers from the air; South Kordofan, the site of a brutal multiyear counterinsurgency; or even the vast Khartoum metropolis itself, where hundreds were killed during an earlier spate of protests in 2012 and 2013. ICC prosecution would also personalize the country’s overlapping crises by laying Sudan’s woes at the feet of a single individual. Moreover, knowledgeable observers such as Alex de Waal and Mahmood Mamdani have suggested that the ICC might fail to convict Bashir of any crimes owing to the poor quality of both the indictment, which contains factual errors, and its substance. Alternatively, Sudan could try Bashir in a domestic court in order to reduce concerns about the perceived anti-African bias of the ICC. Both of these options are unlikely to satisfy the protesters who demand accountability for the entire regime and its numerous beneficiaries.
When Nimeiri was overthrown, he was exiled to Egypt. Bashir, too, could be expelled to a foreign country along with his top officials. He and his regime insiders likely hoped for such an outcome in the early days of the transition. Uganda was the first country to consider opening its doors, but it is a signatory to the ICC; Bashir would more likely find asylum in Saudi Arabia or another Gulf country that would not be obligated to hand him over to the court. The current military rulers, who insist on retaining power even within a civilian government, might be happy to have him out of the country. But the protesters are unlikely to accept any approach in which Bashir and others are never held responsible for their actions.
If Bashir stays in Sudan without facing trial, he and other figures connected to the regime could be offered a degree of immunity as part of a South African–style truth and reconciliation process. This approach is both the most potentially difficult and the likeliest to yield real rewards. A truth and reconciliation process could force open a long-repressed conversation about the damage the Bashir regime has inflicted on particular people and on Sudanese society as a whole over the past three decades. Through such a process, Sudanese may finally be able to articulate a national identity that transcends the Islamist and Arabist supremacy that has long been the source of the country’s many problems. Although Sudanese often pay lip service to the diversity of the country, most also recognize that the different communities that share this vast nation know little of one another. A national conversation that allows victims to share their stories could deepen understanding among Sudan’s diverse populations. It would also foster empathy and help Sudanese craft the inclusive and democratic national identity that has eluded them for too long.
Truth and reconciliation has a mixed record in the countries that have attempted it. And any discussion of amnesty or reduced punishment for regime insiders will rankle many victims as well as protesters seeking more retributive forms of justice. But nations that seek to move forward after trauma must confront their painful histories. Sudan’s failure to reckon with its past, or to construct an inclusive national project after the last two prior popular uprisings, allowed the military to take over in the first place. A genuine truth and reconciliation process is the best way to prevent history from repeating itself once again.