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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Idriss Deby, entre le marteau et l’enclume

by Camille Bauer

Idriss Deby, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Translated Thursday 7 February 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Chad. The president of Chad has succeeded in marking some points by playing on national sentiment, but he is playing with a weapon that could backfire on him.

N’Djamena, by our special correspondentb (Nov. 16, 2007).

Things may have gone too far this time. Thousands of uniformed high school students converged on Independence Square on Wednesday morning to shout their anger at France, which they consider to be responsible for the activities of the Arche de Zoé team. During the day, the minister of Justice and other members of the government relayed one another in calling for calm and in opposing the lumping together of members of the Arche de Zoé, who are seen here as “stealers of children” and the whole of the French expatriate community.

This situation developed, even though the government had carefully prepared the protest march, which was called by a human rights organization close to the government. To this end, various youth organizations had been invited early in the week to meetings with the ministers of Human Rights, of Education, and of Social Action. The regime’s goal was the emergence of a credible movement. But, according to several sources, the level of violence that was reached when the protest march passed in front of French institutions, notably the French embassy, had not been foreseen by the government. Anti-French feeling, which has been contained for years by a very repressive security apparatus, found release in the protest march.

Up until now, the President of Chad has seemed to benefit from the wave of anti-French feeling aroused by the Arche de Zoé affair and Nicolas Sarkozy’s thunderous statements. President Idriss Deby, who is generally discredited by his violent, clan-oriented management of Chad, had acquired a new credibility by adopting an aggressive posture towards the members of the Arche de Zoé, whom he insulted abundantly. In the markets of N’Djamena, you could hear people saying “Our president defends us, too.” This change in attitude was welcome to him, all the more so as the government has yet to act on the agreement that it signed with the opposition and which is intended to clean up the electoral system. Despite his declarations in favor of rapid enactment of the agreement, the President seems to have played a double game, putting forward the Prime Minister’s hostility to the agreement so as to mark time on a measure which, in the long run, could threaten his hold on power.

As regards foreign diplomacy, the content of Deby’s negotiations with Sarkozy remain secret, but several observers believe that Deby has gotten France to intercede so as to reduce the pressure from the European Union (EU), which was behind the agreement concluded with the opposition and which wants to see the agreement enforced, all the more so as the EU is to deploy troops in eastern Chad in December to guarantee the safety of the Darfur refugee camps.

But this situation could develop into a delicate one for Deby. One Chad politician analyzes it as a “tactical error.” Among those who are in the know, many think that the way the members of the Arche de Zoé were able to operate without being spotted is an indication of the chronic inefficiency of the Chad administration. Some, like Ibrahim, a fashion designer, even accuse President Deby of having “sold the children.” Above all, the way that Deby backed down in the face of Sarkozy’s saber-rattling and ordered the first liberations is seen in Chad as an admission of weakness which makes Deby’s nationalist posturing seem ridiculous. Others are already talking of a secret agreement with Paris for the return to France of the six members of the Arche de Zoé who are still being held in N’Djamena prison.

It does not seem possible for Deby to resist the pressure from Paris much longer. It was France that put him in power in 1989 and it was French logistical support that made it possible for him to thwart a rebel raid on the capital in April 2006. “Deby knows that he is not in power thanks to the people’s love. His power comes from his gun and from the assistance provided by the French army” – so says the president of the judges association in summing up the situation. By using anti-French sentiment, Idriss Deby has “re-activated an old quarrel,” says junior minister Laona Gong Raoul. “Every time a scandal like that of the Arche de Zoé breaks, it inflames the old rebel and Muslim sentiment, and demands for the departure of the French army are heard again...” If Deby gives in to French pressure, he is likely to lose what little credibility he has left. If he resists, he may antagonize his best ally, France. Before Deby, President Hissein Habré, put into power and later overthrown by France, learned the lesson to his own discomfiture.

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