On 11 April, Sudan’s despotic ruler of 3 decades Omar al-Bashir was deposed by the country’s military. The momentous move was precipitated by months of crippling public protests over deteriorating living conditions in the North African country. Although Sudan’s political future remains in limbo, with the military facing mounting calls to hasten a handover to civil rule, many Sudanese remain hopeful of a brighter future.
On the same day that al-Bashir was ousted, the country’s security services released political prisoners arrested during the protests. Among them was geneticist Muntaser Ibrahim, who had by then spent 50 days behind bars after he and his academic colleagues had drawn up a document, signed by many other staff at the University of Khartoum, that contained suggestions for regime change.
Science spoke to Ibrahim about his imprisonment, his release, and the future of science in Sudan. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Tell us about your arrest.
A: There were actually several this year. The first time, I was sitting with colleagues discussing the memorandum for regime change we were preparing to deliver to the government. We were released the same day. The second time was during a protest at a University of Khartoum staff club. They arrested 25 of us and, again, released us at the end of the day. Usually, during those arrests, they are harsh with the young people, but they respect us gray hairs a bit more.
The third and last took place in the center of Khartoum. It was during a political rally for the coalition asking for leadership change, which were happening three times a week. I had been asked to represent university staff, so I went. Even before anything started there were hundreds of security forces all around. They asked us to come with them.
Q: Were you always politically active?
A: I was active as a student, but since starting a research job I didn’t have the time! But in the last year or so I decided to take action. Things were dire, and everything was deteriorating. That’s when we started working on the memorandum for change from university staff. But no, I never thought I’d be a prisoner.
Q: During your 6 weeks in prison, were you ever charged with anything?
A: No, never. Freedom of gathering is guaranteed by Sudan’s constitution. I was only interrogated once. I believe my detention was directly related to the fact that more than 700 faculty members of the University of Khartoum signed a proposition for a peaceful transfer of power.
Q: Did you know what was going on outside the prison?
A: We were able to follow what was happening in the streets. We were usually let out of our cells for an hour or so. During the last 2 days they didn’t let us out at all, not even for an hour. But a prisoner would go out for medical treatment and get news, and when he came back he whispered it to us. We heard that people were in the streets in the hundreds of thousands. Our morale was getting higher.
Q: How did you find out you were going to be released?
A: They just came in the morning with instructions that we were going home. They just let us out. Outside the prison, people were waiting for us. They carried us on their shoulders. It was an amazing experience.
Q: What’s happening now? Are the universities back up and running?
A: Nothing is running. We still don’t have a civilian government. The military that took over are dragging their feet a bit. There is no lab work, and the country is still in a standstill. Students are still sitting in the yards.
Q: And you, what are you doing?
A: Since my release, I have been longing for my cell and the relaxation! [Laughs] We, the university staff, are still active in trying to reach a settlement to the political crisis. The university, historically, is a respected institution. I’m also busy finishing a book that I’ve written with Charles Rotimi [of the U.S. National Institutes of Health] about the genetics of African populations. I have had time to download the final manuscript and the proofs, and I hope it will be out soon.
Q: How do you feel about the future of science in Sudan?
A: I’m very optimistic about this revolution. We are smelling change. It will be good for science. Science needs independent universities, it needs freedom of thought. And scientists, like anybody else, need to take part in these turning points in history. It’s our duty.
Q: Do you have a message to the people who called for your release?
A: I was really moved by the extent of international solidarity from the scientific community. I didn’t see it as solidarity with myself, but with the peaceful protests. I took it as an indication of appreciation of what the Sudanese people have done. I hope we can get back to a normal life.