The death of Chadian President Idriss Déby at the age of 68 in an attack in northern Chad carried out by the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) could be a game-changer for security-related questions in North Africa and the Sahel, a region that intersects with Egypt’s sphere of strategic and national security interests.
Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, has assumed control of the country at the head of a 16-member Transitional Military Council (TMC) that will govern for 18 months. But the crisis is not over yet, with some questioning the son’s ability to fill his father’s shoes.
Déby, the longest-serving African leader, had remained in power for over three decades through his manipulation of Chad’s constitution, repression of the opposition and the political and economic hegemony of the Zaghawa ethnic group.
He was an astute player of the regional and international rivalries over his country because of its strategic location and oil and mineral resources, and he succeeded in maintaining close relations with diverse regional and international powers with sometimes conflicting interests, such as France and the US, Russia and China, Israel, Turkey and Qatar, and Egypt and the UAE.
France has defended its support for the unconstitutional transfer of power to the TMC following Déby’s death on the grounds of security considerations in exceptional circumstances. French President Emmanuel Macron, who flew to Chadian capital N’Djamena to take part in the funeral ceremonies, pledged to support the stability of the country, which serves as a staging post for French-led Barkhane military operations against terrorist groups in the Sahel.
France’s stance may also be informed by its desire to avert the mistakes it made in Libya after the death of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Nevertheless, there are concerns that Chad may be on the brink of more unrest, as Déby’s death could inspire Chadian rebel groups to double up their pressure on the regime in N’Djamena.
FACT has announced its opposition to the TMC and its determination to continue its offensive, and another insurgency group called the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (CCMSR) has announced its support for FACT. The country’s political opposition has voiced its rejection of the hereditary succession scenario against the backdrop of economic deterioration and inequality aggravated by corruption in the management of the country’s oil revenues. Chad is among the poorest countries in the world.
Another reason for concern is that the Chadian army is overstretched and is near the point of exhaustion due to its participation in multiple counter-terrorist missions, such as MINUSMA, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission, in northern Mali, the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the multinational forces fighting the Boko Haram group in the Lake Chad region.
Egypt fears that Déby’s assassination could spill over into crises closer to Egypt. Instability in Chad could affect the situation in Darfur in Sudan because of tribal and ethnic linkages and the possible influxes of refugees, for example.
Armed skirmishes erupted earlier this month in Geneina, the state capital of West Darfur, between the ethnically African Masalit people and the Arabs after the departure of the UNAMID peacekeeping mission. Representatives from the armed groups in Darfur have been included in the Sudanese Transitional Authority after they agreed to the Juba Peace Agreement.
The volatility of the situation in Chad puts the Sudanese Sovereignty Council under heavy pressure to calm the tensions in Darfur and to ensure the durability of the Juba Agreement. This is particularly important at a moment when Khartoum, together with Cairo, is focusing on the threat coming from Ethiopia’s determination to proceed unilaterally with the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in July without reaching a binding agreement with the two downstream nations.
Another area of concern is Libya. Although the Libyan House of Representatives gave a vote of confidence to a new government in the country in March, six months after the ceasefire agreement in October last year, the developments in Chad could have serious implications for its northern neighbour.
FACT has bases in southern Libya, the staging posts for its attack in northern Chad that killed Déby. This could turn attention to the Libyan National Army (LNA), seen by some as a source of instability and criticised for its relationship with the Chadian rebel movement.
According to a UN report, FACT forces helped the LNA secure its control over parts of southern and central Libya.
The presence of the Chadian rebel group in Libya adds to regional and international pressures on the country to expel foreign mercenaries. This could transfer the threat posed by Sudanese and Chadian armed actors to western Sudan, northern Chad, northern Niger and possibly other neighbours, increasing the risk of armed uprisings and confrontations on the other side of Libya’s borders and affecting the still-fragile peace in Libya itself.
There are still many mercenaries in Libya, and no progress has been made towards the dismantling and assimilation of the Libyan militias. Foreign military interventions persist because local stakeholders fear that relinquishing their support will jeopardise gains in the peace process.
The recent altercation between Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush and western Libyan factions over the need for Turkey to withdraw its forces from Libya illustrates the difficulties. The pro-Turkish camp argued that the newly inaugurated transitional government in Libya does not have the authority to annul the security agreement that the previous Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) signed with Ankara, leading to large influxes of arms, military advisers and Turkish-paid combatants.
It is in Egypt’s interest that the ceasefire in Libya remains durable and that the LNA secures control over the south so as not to disturb the delicate balances that made the ceasefire possible. Egypt is drawing closer to the government in Tripoli as a way of bolstering the peace process, and the Egyptian prime minister recently visited Tripoli in order to promote Egypt’s role in Libyan reconstruction.
Egypt is determined to prevent any outbreak of tensions in southern Libya against the backdrop of the Chadian fighters in Libya, as these could create an opportunity for parties in western Libya to attempt to undermine the LNA and disrupt the general calm.
Déby’s passing has also raised concerns over the future of bilateral relations between Cairo and N’Djamena, a hub in the fight against terrorism, organised crime and arms trafficking in the Libyan, Sudanese and Chadian triangle, an area that extends to Jebel Uweinat on Egypt’s southern border.
Egypt has invested considerably in Chadian development in recent years, and Egyptian firms play a prominent role in infrastructure projects. Al-Azhar has also spearheaded humanitarian, medical and religious initiatives in the framework of the drive to combat terrorism.
Egypt’s support for Chad has also in part been directed to ensuring the Déby regime’s support for the Egyptian-French position on the Libyan crisis. But Chad is also key to stimulating a greater Egyptian role in the Sahel, especially in counter-terrorist efforts. Instability in the new government in Chad could be detrimental to bilateral relations between Cairo and N’Djamena.
The events in Chad could also have broader repercussions. They could trigger another escalation between the US and Russia over Libya in the light of Western reports that accuse the Russian military contracting agency the Wagner Group of supporting FACT in its attacks in northern Chad, especially given Washington’s efforts to remove foreign fighters from Libya.
Paris could defer its plans to withdraw French forces from the Sahel in the light of possible further deteriorations in the security situation and the opening that this would give to terrorist groups. It may also fear Russian encroachment at the expense of French influence in the area, in view of reports that the Wagner Group has also been involved in other Francophone African nations such as Madagascar and Mozambique.
Rising US-Russian tensions over the Libyan crisis and its extensions in the Sahel would affect Egypt’s alliances in the region, which lean towards France and Russia.
The extent of the fallout left by Déby’s death on Egypt’s interests in North Africa and the Sahel is contingent on how quickly it acts to contain the impacts of the Chadian crisis in southern Libya or Darfur.
Cairo has many assets to draw on, not least its record of political, security and developmental cooperation with N’Djamena, as well as its other channels of influence in the Sahel, such as the Sahel-Saharan Counterterrorism Centre which will be increasingly crucial to the stability of the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly