The Fall of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the ‘Spider’ at the Heart of Sudan’s Web


President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan at a rally in Khartoum in 2009 after he was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Credit: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir loved to tell the story about his broken tooth.

As a schoolboy working on a construction site, he told supporters in January, he fell and broke the tooth while carrying a heavy load. Instead of seeking treatment he rinsed his mouth with saltwater and kept working.

Later, after he joined the army, he refused a silver tooth implant because he wanted to remember his hardships. “This one,” he said, pointing to a gap in his mouth, as supporters erupted into laughter.

The story was a way for Mr. al-Bashir, who was ousted Thursday after 30 years of iron-fisted rule over Sudan, to play up his humble origins — to show that he remained a man of the people who, like him, hailed from dusty farming villages on the Nile.

The folksy image was a jarring contrast with Mr. al-Bashir’s image in the West, where he was often seen as a heartless warmonger, as a coddler of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and as the accused architect of a genocidal purge in Darfur that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Since 2009, the International Criminal Court has sought to arrest him on war crimes charges that include murder, rape and extermination.

Sudanese demonstrators at a rally this month in Khartoum. The protests started in December over the price of bread. Credit: Reuters

But global notoriety was never much of a problem for Mr. al-Bashir, 75, at home in Sudan, a vast African country with a long history of war and suffering. He outwitted rivals who underestimated him, steered a decade-long oil boom that swelled Sudan’s middle classes, and forged a network of security forces and armed militias to fight his wars that some likened to a spider’s web with Mr. al-Bashir at its center.

That carefully constructed edifice of power crumbled this week as thousands of protesters massed outside his Khartoum residence, chanting slogans and braving gunfire as rival gangs of soldiers exchanged fire. The oil money was running low, the economy was in tatters and young Sudanese, in particular, had had enough. The spider had to go.

“Just fall, that is all!” they chanted.

On Thursday morning, the military ousted him, ending his 30-year rule in the face of the sweeping demonstrations. It said it had taken Mr. al-Bashir into custody, dissolved the government and suspended the Constitution.

Representatives of the principal protest group, the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, which had been expecting a statement from the military and were preparing to negotiate a transition to civilian rule, greeted the announcement with disappointment.

Mr. al-Bashir, center, with military officers in Khartoum in July 1989. He led an Islamist junta that ousted the civilian government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in June that year. Credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“What has been just stated is for us a coup, and it is not acceptable,” said Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the group. “Our request for a civilian transitional government has been ignored.”

Born into a farming family in a dusty village 100 miles north of Khartoum, the capital, Mr. al-Bashir served as a paratroop commander in the army. In 1989, he headed an Islamist junta that ousted Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless coup, Sudan’s fourth military takeover since independence in 1956.

For the first decade of his rule, though, Mr. al-Bashir, was seen as a frontman for a more powerful force — the cleric Hassan al-Turabi, a smooth-talking, Sorbonne-educated ideologue with sweeping ideas about embedding Shariah law deep in Sudan’s diverse society and institutions.

International jihadists flocked to Sudan in that period, among them Osama bin Laden, who bought a house in an upmarket Khartoum district and invested in agriculture and construction. In 1993, the United States blacklisted the Bashir government as an international sponsor of terrorism and imposed sanctions four years later.