The ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir should be a moment for celebration: one of the world’s worst villains, driven from power after waves of popular protest. Ideally, after a few weeks of house arrest spent hearing from the families of people he had tortured and murdered, he should be sent off to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Unfortunately, this is not going to happen. Al-Bashir was not driven from power by people seeking a democratic transition. He was taken out by his henchmen, who came to see him as too much of a liability.
After announcing the dictator was in custody, Defense Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf imposed a national 10 p.m. curfew, suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and said there would be a two-year period of military rule.
The U.S. and its allies can and should do something about this power grab. But before getting to that, it’s worth savoring the end of al-Bashir’s reign. Start with an obvious point: The man is a war criminal. In 2009 and 2010 the ICC issued arrest warrants for his role in organizing the brutal campaign in the 2000s against his own citizens in Darfur.
The prosecutor’s list of particulars makes for a harrowing read. The slaughter is out of the dark ages. Thousands of women belonging to minority Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes were systematically raped.
The wells and water pumps in these villages were poisoned. Tribes allied with the government were encouraged to resettle there after the natives were driven out and killed.
And Darfur is only one of al-Bashir’s crimes.
He also prosecuted a civil war against his country’s Animist and Christian populations until he eventually agreed to the peace agreement that created South Sudan in 2011.
I visited Khartoum in 2002, during the north-south war, and saw the results of the bombing myself. In one particularly horrid episode, Sudan’s makeshift air force accompanied UN planes and dropped bombs on villagers as they came out to claim the sacks of food delivered by the aid workers.
That incident occurred in October 2001, when al-Bashir’s government was offering the U.S. intelligence on al-Qaeda following the Sept. 11 attacks. Some intelligence cooperation had already begun with the U.S. in 2000, when the CIA sent a team to Khartoum to learn what it could about Osama bin Laden’s operation there.
This brings up another element of al-Bashir’s legacy: his opportunism. He came to power as part of an Islamist-inspired coup in 1989. After taking power, al-Bashir imposed a policy to implement Shariah law throughout the country, a campaign that included intimidation and street violence against the Christian minority.
He also offered his country as a refuge for radicals. Gradually, however, he changed course. In 1999, he arrested a powerful Islamist politician and rival and began his outreach to America.
Over the years, al-Bashir has accepted patronage from just about every continent.
He allowed the Chinese to build an oil pipeline in Sudan in the 1990s.
He has allied in the past with Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Al-Bashir’s main allegiance, though, was to himself and staying in power.
Now he has been forced into retirement by the army he counted on to brutalize his many opponents. That’s a good start, but it’s not enough. John Prendergast, co-founder of the Sentry, a non-governmental organization dedicated to tracking the assets of war criminals, said the military coup in Khartoum does not change anything. "They are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," he said. "Al-Bashir had to step aside to lessen the pressure and create the appearance of change."
So it’s important to see the coup not as the end to Sudan’s nightmare, but as the beginning of the end. The next step should be a clear policy for the U.S. and its western allies to align more directly with the popular protest movement that forced the military’s hand. Early signs out of the State Department are encouraging.
On Thursday, the U.S. announced it was suspending a dialogue with the regime and encouraged a speedy transition to civilian rule.
Prendergast recommends a new campaign to track and freeze the overseas accounts of the regime’s leaders. There are other steps the West can take to aid and protect Sudan’s opposition, such as building up legal cases against other regime leaders and offering encrypted communication technology to protest organizers.
The most important step, though, is to resist the temptation to reach out to the military regime that replaced al-Bashir.
Sudan should remain isolated until it is free.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.