Yemen's long-dominant political party has fractured into competing factions in Sana'a, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, with more in the making
Analysis: The GPC party two years after Saleh: Fragmentation along battle lines
Two years have passed since former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, founder and chairman of the General People's Congress (GPC), was killed by his then-Houthi allies. A close alliance between Saleh and the Houthis enabled them to seize the state apparatus and extend control over much of western Yemen, before an all-out war led by Saudi Arabia broke out, leading to what is considered among the most complex and tragic crises in the history of the region.
On Dec. 2, 2017, Saleh directed his supporters to rebel against the Houthis in what he called a "revolution" against the Imamate, suggesting the Houthis sought to resurrect the Zaidi Shia dynasty that ruled Yemen for a millennium before the Republic of Yemen was founded in 1962. His call was too late, however, and the Houthis, as it turned out, were expecting Saleh’s move. They surrounded the 70-year-old and a handful of GPC members in the capital, Sana'a.
During their short-lived alliance with Saleh, the Houthis succeeded in recruiting state actors within the GPC’s organizational structure. According to two GPC officials who spoke to Almasdar Online on condition of anonymity, the Houthis built a gap between Saleh and the GPC's popular masses, giving them the opportunity to greatly exploit the GPC’s power base and political infrastructure.
The start of fragmentation
When talking about fragmentation of the GPC, it is necessary to look at the pre-war period, after Saleh ceded power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, on Feb. 27, 2012, under the Gulf initiative. Although Hadi was also considered a leader of the GPC at that time, as vice president of the party, Saleh was able to rally other GPC officials in opposition to Hadi and disrupt the Gulf initiative. During this time signs of a division surfaced between party officials supporting President Hadi, the political transition and the national dialogue on the one hand, and party officials loyal to former president Saleh on the other. The fundamental difference between the two power bases was such that Saleh retained support of the party's masses as a result of his popularity, while Hadi enjoyed the support of the party's political leaders, including former Saleh advisor and secretary-general of the GPC Abdulkarim Al-Iryani.
The schism within the GPC was further complicated after the start of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led coalition military intervention that began on March 26, 2015 to restore Hadi to power. Public signs of this division emerged when it was clear that Saleh strongly supported the Houthi coup, and the ex-president said in a speech that the only exit strategies for Hadi and his political allies were escape or exile.
Following this episode, President Hadi and Saudi Arabia put Saleh in the same category as the Houthis. Saleh had effectively become a military ally of the Houthis, supporting them with military equipment and commanders and thus becoming a target of the coalition.
Saleh's position prompted many GPC officials to align themselves with President Hadi and the internationally recognized government. Some of these officials had stood by Saleh’s side during and following the events of 2011. Among them, deputy chairman of the GPC, Ahmed Obaid Bin Dagher, Rashad al-Alimi and Mohammed Bin Naji al-Shayef. Other leaders chose neutrality, such as Sheikh Sultan Al-Barakani, who later sided with Hadi’s government and eventually became the speaker of the House of Representatives by consensus.
With the wave of uprisings sweeping across a number of Arab countries, Yemen among them, the GPC survived the fate of its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, thanks to the Gulf Initiative. The GPC continued to play the role of the ruler and the opposition at the same time, until the Houthis succeeded in swallowing it, and liquidated Saleh and the secretary-general of the party, Aref Al-Zuka. This led to the most dangerous phase in the history of the party since its founding on Aug. 24, 1982, and also in the history of Yemen.
After Saleh's liquidation, the Houthis launched a massive campaign to suppress GPC officials and members who were loyal to Saleh, in most cases arresting them. The Houthis then pursued and killed tribal sheikhs, military and non-military leaders in what has been described as an "organized liquidation campaign" by a GPC leader who spoke to Almasdar Online on the condition of anonymity.
While many GPC leaders and representatives in parliament were forced to flee Sana’a, some took sides with the Hadi government while others did not specify a position until recently. However, most of the party’s leaders inside Yemen have bowed to Houthi pressure and have complied with a party formula that was reconstituted by the Houthis.
A GPC leader, who spoke from Sana'a, said that given the nature of the phase following Saleh's death, it is clear that the party's strength was in Saleh himself, and once he was killed the GPC became weak and its leaders were unable to move or guide its power bases. The party and its supporters are now facing a new reality, called by leaders and factions representing different, and often conflicting orientations and agendas.
The current makeup of the GPC’s various factions is as follows:
Politically, the strength of the GPC is concentrated in its pro-government leaders, led by President Hadi. Many of the GPC’s senior officials support the Hadi administration, given its international recognition as the official government of Yemen.
These leaders are present in the Saudi capital Riyadh, and their political positions are consistent with the decisions of the Hadi government, the Saudi-led coalition and Yemen’s national army. The most prominent leaders of this wing include deputy chairman of the party and presidential advisor, Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr, secretary-general of the party and speaker of the House of Representatives, Sheikh Sultan Al-Barakani, member of the standing committee, Rashad al-Alimi, and other individuals including member of parliament and presidential advisor, Mohammed bin Naji al-Shayef, southern standing committee member and Interior Minister Ahmed Al-Maysari and other party leaders in the House of Representatives.
In contrast to the large pro-Hadi political bloc in Riyadh, there is a faction of the GPC that chose to stay in Sana'a and side with the Houthis. Aside from some remarks made by Sana’ani GPC officials in the hopes of distinguishing themselves from the Houthis, there is generally little difference between the Sana’ani GPC and Houthi political outlook and practice.
A month after the killings of Saleh and Al-Zuka, party officials in Sana'a held a meeting in which Sadiq Amin Abu Ras was elected GPC chairman to succeed Saleh. This appointment and meeting were not recognized by the Hadi government, as all those in attendance were in theory under house arrest. The appointment and meeting were, however, recognized by the Abu Dhabi faction of the GPC, examined below.
The Sana’ani faction is now led by Abu Ras, as party chairman, Abdulaziz Bin Habtoor, as head of the Houthi-GPC coalition government, speaker of the House of Representatives Yahya Al-Ra’ee, and member of the standing committee Hussein Hazeb. This Houthi-GPC coalition government is not recognized by the international community.
Despite Houthi attempts to mitigate the consequences of the December 2017 events that ended in Saleh's death by normalizing the relationship with GPC officials Sana'a, Houthi aggression against GPC officials has not stopped.
With a weak GPC leadership, the Houthis were able to retain control of the GPC’s constituents, giving them great human capital and the physical space for organizational action. Over the past two years, ex-GPC loyalists have switched their allegiance to the Houthis en masse. This includes several military figures in the Republican Guards, especially in the northern regions.
Abu Dhabi wing
After Saleh's death, a third GPC faction emerged in the United Arab Emirates, which has spearheaded the coalition war alongside Saudi Arabia. Led primarily by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, this faction also includes prominent figures like former Minister of Foreign Affairs Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, former director of Political Security Hammoud al-Sufi, standing committee member Yahya Dowaid and member of parliament Ahmed al-Kuhlani, despite Ahmed Ali’s placement under UN sanctions.
Among the GPC factions, the Abu Dhabi wing is the least understood as far as its outlook on the events in Yemen. That said, it is seemingly more closely tied to the Sana’ani faction than the pro-Hadi faction. Evidence of an apparent harmony between the Sana’ani and Abu Dhabi factions is illustrated by the appointment of Ahmed Ali to the party’s standing committee in October of 2018. This decision was approved by officials in both factions.
While Ahmed Ali did not take a stance regarding his appointment, other party officials in both Sana’a and Abu Dhabi have framed it as a protective measure against party fragmentation. Further evidence of this is seen in the Sana’ani GPC efforts to lift UN sanctions imposed on Ahmed Ali.
Following his father’s killing at the hand of the Houthis, Ahmed Ali did not issue any explicit denunciation of the Houthis. His silence, and that of other Abu Dhabi GPC officials over Saleh’s killing, is seen as working in favor of the Houthis. In turn, the Houthis have afforded these GPC members ease of movement and residence in its territory, and even communication with the leaders in Sanaa who support of the Houthis.
The Abu Dhabi faction has remained intransigent in its position against President Hadi and his government, and has not issued any position in support of him, reflecting the extent of the GPC’s confusion in its inability to recover after Saleh's death.
The Cairo faction is a mixed bag of supporters of all wings (Sana'a, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh). One Cairene GPC official told Almasdar Online that the party’s Egypt-based faction is the one that escaped polarization, reflected in its sometimes nickname, the “reconciliation faction,” and sometimes as a “frustrated faction.” It is led by a mix of GPC officials from various factions and is seen as a neutral seat for discussion and reconciliation. Many GPC media and political officials live in Cairo.
Failed attempts at revival
Party rifts and a general downward spiral into political and geographic fragmentation have paralyzed the GPC party and made it an ineffective relic, so ineffective, it seems, that continued attempts to revive it have failed.
Despite its paralysis and divisions, the GPC remains the largest political party in Yemen, with President Hadi and the majority of civil and military leaders still party members.
Past attempts to bridge the gap between the Abu Dhabi and Riyadh factions’ views have failed. One of the most notable of these attempts was the Jeddah meeting, sponsored by the Saudi intelligence apparatus starting in early 2019. During the talks, GPC leaders held several meetings in Jeddah, Cairo and Abu Dhabi to find a formula for consensus in the presence of the Saudi intelligence officers.
While some of these meetings succeeded in electing Sultan Al-Barakani as president of the House of Representatives and convening the legislative body for the first time since the war started in Seiyun, Hadhramout in April 2019, many of the Sana’ani and Abu Dhabi members later backtracked on what was agreed upon.
Saudi intelligence re-established its efforts in July 2019 and provided political and financial support to GPC officials to encourage consensus. But the August outbreak of violence in Aden between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Hadi’s government halted these efforts.
The biggest points of contention among GPC factions revolve around leadership. The Abu Dhabi and Sana’ani faction do not recognize Hadi’s presidency, and officials from both wings, as well as the Riyadh faction, do not recognize the leadership of other party officials who have been appointed since Saleh’s death. A Saudi-based GPC official told Almasdar Online that the undeclared disagreement between Saudi Arabia and UAE over the future of the GPC is a major sticking point: Abu Dhabi refuses to support President Hadi and insists on empowering Ahmed Ali and the Abu Dhabi faction to the party’s upper echelons.
In between the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi GPC rift stands the nephew of ex-President Saleh, Tarek Mohammed Saleh, whose military forces are based in Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Al-Mocha. Tarek and his forces are advancing the Hadi government's agenda against the Houthis. Regular meetings take place between Tarek and his forces and the Hadi government to discuss the situation on the ground in Hodeidah. However, Tarek is politically-aligned with Abu Dhabi GPC faction and receives funding for its military operations from the UAE, according to several sources which have spoken to Almasdar Online on the condition of anonymity.
The most recent disagreement between the Riyadh and Abu Dhabi GPC camps came to light in June 2019, when Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi, the assistant secretary-general in the Abu Dhabi faction, criticized attempts by pro-Hadi officials to wrest the party leadership from the Sana'a GPC, confirming that the Abu Dhabi faction is closer to the pro-Houthi Sana'ani faction.
GPC fragmentation exacerbates Yemen’s fragmentation
After nearly five years into a war of attrition in Yemen, and two years after Saleh's death, the Houthis appear to be benefiting the most from the GPC split, in turn weakening the Hadi government’s position on a daily basis.
Without a clear political outlook or leader, former GPC loyalists who remain in Yemen are now switching allegiance to the new power center: the Houthis and their Houthi-dictated coalition with the GPC.
On the other hand, in the south, GPC confusion also serves the STC, which has pushed for secession along the lines of the former South Yemen. Where ex-GPC constituents can no longer trust in the military and political firmity of the GPC, they turn to the clear emerging power, the STC. An increase in the number of GPC-turned-STC loyalists means general growth for the STC and the addition of fuel to the fire of secession.
The GPC has shaped modern Yemen and had an undeniable influence on Yemeni politics, but it is losing its luster as schisms, widening on a daily basis among a multitude of party factions, threaten to become permanent. This is especially true now that ideological common ground has continued to erode, as Houthis impose religious training on all public employees who are mostly GPC members.
The main challenges facing the GPC are bringing together members who are drifting to the various factions within the party and at times to entirely new parties, while safeguarding against its evolution into an elitist party without a popular power base. In view of these challenges, the GPC will need to strike new strategic alliances to recuperate all that it has lost politically in recent years. The party faces a difficult test that requires great will and responsibility in order to overcome the dangers of having politically-lost-in-the-woods-leadership exacerbating political rifts.
A fifth wing
In the midst of this divisive situation, there have been GPC voices calling for an end to the reliance on outside forces, claiming the party will only regain its place with an approach that listens to the voice of the street and is aligned with the idea of the state.
These voices criticize the surrender of the Abu Dhabi faction to UAE influence, accuse the Sana’ani faction’s leaders of treason for identifying with Saleh's killers and blame the Riyadh faction’s weakness and incompetence as a cause of Yemen’s continued conflict.
The most prominent of these votes is Adel al-Shujaa, a member of the GPC’s standing committee. Along with similar voices, he represents a fifth GPC faction with a different vision. Although their message may be wholesome, their mere existence strikes an uncomfortable tone in the political disharmony Yemen is currently facing. With a fifth faction beginning to rear its head, what protection is there against sixth or even seventh coming to light?