The United Arab Emirates has managed to bring together Tunisian politician Mohsen Marzouk and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar after a series of meetings brokered by its embassy in Tunisia and adviser Mohammed Dahlan. Other meetings – leaked but not confirmed by Marzouk and his Machrouu Tounes movement – have apparently taken place in Paris.
Furthermore, reports have emerged of meetings between Marzouk and Egyptian officials, ordered by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to take place secretly. The government in Cairo ordered its agencies to coordinate with Marzouk discreetly so as not to provoke the Tunisian president, for fear that this may strain Sisi's relationship with Beji Caid Essebsi and lead to the Tunisian government withdrawing its support for his bloody coup.
Marzouk aspires to succeed President Essebsi and appears to be the only figure searching desperately for a way to enter Carthage Palace before his mandate ends, using any means possible. The Machrouu Tounes leader has lost a lot of support and it is highly unlikely that he could dislodge Essebsi before that time. Even if he were to succeed in removing him, it is unlikely that he would take over the reins of power for constitutional reasons and that lack of popular support.
It has become clear that Marzouk, having failed to market himself as a figure able to unite all of the opponents of the Ennahda Movement and the other pro-revolution parties, has resorted to the easiest and most lucrative alliance. He is now under the wing of the UAE's Foreign Minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed, who has made a strong return to the Tunisian scene through the announcement of the "Salvation Front", a rehash of the same initiative announced in 2012 through the intensive efforts of Bin Zayed's loyal servant, the former Palestinian Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan.
Observers of the UAE's direct and indirect activities in the region will know that since Abu Dhabi revealed its intentions to ally itself once again with counter-revolutionary forces and chose Marzouk as the main conduit for its plans in Tunisia, he has escalated his rhetoric against Ennahda, adopting an exclusionary discourse not in keeping with his usual calculating approach. This is not a decision made by Marzouk so much as an imposition by his sponsors, the UAE. In Bin Zayed's view, there can be no such thing as a successful revolution and he is willing to impose that view, no matter the sacrifices or costs involved.
For Bin Zayed, a partnership with the Islamists is out of the question; that is the red line that Essebsi crossed, for which he and the whole post-2014 political system must pay the price. The UAE has gone so far as to ban Tunisians from obtaining visas to the UAE.
After its decision to put its money on Marzouk, the UAE has faced great difficulties in marketing him to other Arab countries. Its effort to seduce Algeria failed in late 2015 after its mediation efforts between Marzouk and the government in Algiers were repelled bluntly and coldly.
Undeterred, the Emirates turned to other countries and offered to host Marzouk on the sidelines of various contrived conferences and events aimed at giving him a public platform. These failed to achieve much. The King of Morocco ignored the UAE's messages on the pretext that such matters lay within the jurisdiction of Abdelilah Benkirane's government. Evidently, the rulers of Abu Dhabi know what King Mohammed meant when he redirected their request to the leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD).
The UAE was thus left with no choice but to use Field Marshal Sisi, who cannot afford to refuse any request from Bin Zayed, a key supporter of his coup. However, Sisi has tried to advise the UAE against building a relationship with any figure of whom President Essebsi does not approve, since the Egyptian regime is seeking his recognition and that of other neighbouring states in order to give it a shred of legitimacy. However, in the end, Cairo was forced to open its doors to Marzouk, albeit discreetly and informally, as confirmed by news of meetings between Marzouk and various figures close to Sisi as well as some of his advisers.
Marzouk can no longer rely on promises of US support, which he had received from Hillary Clinton before the presidential election. Meanwhile, he knows that relying on the support of Donald Trump is a gamble. Accordingly, he has jumped into Abu Dhabi's embrace in a race against time to gain regional and international stature. Contrary to usual practice in election campaigns, Marzouk began by promoting himself beyond Tunisia rather than within the country, and has been replicating the movements of Ennahda's leader Rachid Ghannouchi.
While some elites close to Marzouk accuse Ghannouchi of carrying out an electoral campaign aimed at promoting himself through a series of foreign visits around the world, the Machrouu Tounes leader has been trying to mimic his Ennahda counterpart in an effort to redress the balance in his favour. When Ghannouchi intervened in the Libyan issue via Tripoli, Marzouk tried to do so through Tobruk, as part of an Emirati move to pre-empt Ghannouchi's moves after reports that he is to visit Tobruk to meet with Haftar and other parties. The UAE move has nothing to do with reconciliation, peace or trying to end the bloodshed; it is a cold marketing ploy. Marzouk is now convinced that Ghannouchi is his competitor for the presidential election in 2019 so he now sees it as vital to keep up with the veteran Ennahda official's movements and not let the gap between them widen further.
Mohsen Marzouk has no relationships with the various parties in Libya and has little understanding of the differences between factions and tribes. His main motive is to monitor Ghannouchi's moves and respond to them with his own, intended to create a counterbalance. However, these attempts seem ineffectual in comparison with what the Ennahdha leader does, which are precise and well thought-out, compared to Marzouk's abrupt movements seeking to assert his presence on the scene. It is impossible to compare Ghannouchi's visits to China, India, Algeria and Turkey with Marzouk's visit to a street in Benghazi guarded by Division 777 of the Egyptian army. There is a vast difference between Ghannouchi, who managed to persuade Qatar to invest in the Tunisia 2020 international investment conference, and Marzouk, with his ineffective visit to Sicily.
Marzouk knows that if Ghannouchi enters the presidential race, given his regional stature he has no choice but to imitate him and try to improve his diplomatic game and image. His regular meetings with Dahlan, a persona non grata who was expelled from Gaza, cannot compete with a rival who regularly visits Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan; similarly, Marzouk's visit to Haftar in Tobruk cannot be compared with Ghannouchi's meetings with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria.
The Machrouu Tounes leader has two options: he can try to catch up with the competition or withdraw in favour of other more influential figures able to develop diplomatic links more senior than the leaders of a few military divisions and militias and the Prime Minister of Mauritania. Tunisia's revolution has surely not reached the point of entrusting its affairs to a president who considers Dahlan to be his closest confidante, Haftar his military idol and Bin Zayed his master.
Translated from T24.tn, 23 February, 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.