Qur'an and AK-47: the 30-year rule of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir


The dramatic life of has been defined by conflict and political upheaval, so it is fitting that his 30-year rule over Sudan , as thousands of people thronged the streets of the capital, Khartoum.

Demonstrators in Khartoum on Thursday. Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

The son of a farmer, Bashir was born in 1944 in what was still the Kingdom of Egypt and , 12 years before the end of British colonial rule. After completing secondary school, he studied at the prestigious national military academies in Cairo and then Khartoum, where he graduated in 1966. The dominant ideology in both was authoritarian Arab nationalism – though Islamist activism and ideas were spreading fast.

Alla Salah, whose protest against Bashir propelled her to internet fame, flashes a victory sign in Khartoum on Wednesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Having fought as a junior officer in the Egyptian army in the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, Bashir was then posted overseas as military attache before returning to fight in the south of Sudan in the civil war against the rebel People’s Liberation Army.

General Omar al-Bashir at a rally in Khartoum in 1989. Photograph: Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images

He became a prominent leader of Islamist sympathisers in the armed forces and led a group of army officers in a bloodless military coup against the civilian government of the then prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, in 1989. Bashir appeared at a rally with a Qur’an in one hand and an AK-47 in the other, promising “to purge … the enemies of the people and of the armed forces”. An assault on secular officials and politicians followed in a concerted drive to impose a rigorous interpretation of sharia law.

A key ally was , a hardline Islamist politician and cleric.

Omar al-Bashir (centre) with other Revolutionary Council officers in 1989. Photograph: AFP

Sudan rapidly became a centre of “revolutionary” and Islamist radicalism, hosting Osama bin Laden and a series of conferences for anti-western extremists of all ideologies. This alienated many western countries, as well as Sudan’s neighbours.

However, Bashir showed pragmatism too, and allowed French secret services to capture the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal in 1994. Bin Laden was forced to leave two years later and Turabi was marginalised in 1999.

Growing oil revenues eased the economic situation, but by 2000, when Bashir was elected for a second official term in what was still, in effect, a one-party state, he was coming under intense international pressure to end the civil war in the south that had caused the deaths of nearly 2 million people.

Bashir with the British prime minister, Tony Blair, in 2004. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
Bashir with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in 2018. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images
Bashir with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2018. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

After extensive negotiations, Bashir and the rebel leader John Garang signed a peace agreement in Nairobi in January 2005, granting southern Sudan autonomy and a referendum on independence in six years.

But one conflict was replaced by another. A war in Darfur, a western region of Sudan, had been under way for some time and was marked by appalling atrocities. The United Nations estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 people died in the conflict, with a further 2.7 million displaced.

In 2009, the international criminal court indicted Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, holding him responsible for the acts of theHe denied the charges.

Two years later, oil-rich South Sudan , leading to a massive cut in government revenues. Some analysts date the beginning of the end for Bashir, who relied on state resources to buy off both potential rivals and popular protests, to this moment.

The veteran leader tried to mitigate the effects of the deepening economic crisis by building warmer diplomatic relationships with China, the US and key powers in the Gulf. Though this led to the easing of sanctions and some new funding, it was insufficient to stave off disaster.