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Weak and Divided, the General People’s Congress Turns 40

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

The General People’s Congress (GPC) is going through an unprecedented period of weakness as it recently marked the 40th anniversary of its founding on August 24. The party was born from the national dialogue conducted in the early 1980s following a brutal civil war, and every Yemeni president since has been a high-ranking member of the party. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was the chairman of the GPC and ruled under its name until he stepped down following massive protests in 2011. His vice president and second in command in the GPC, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, became president in February 2012. After Hadi was removed from power in April of this year, another high-ranking member of the GPC and a former interior minister under Saleh, Rashad al-Alimi, became chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council.

The split within the ranks of the GPC, a party that has ruled Yemen for decades, started in 2011 when high-ranking and influential members defected from the party after the government’s brutal crackdown on protests. When Hadi took power, the first-tier leadership of the GPC was divided between Hadi and Saleh, who maintained his leadership of the party despite Hadi’s demands for him to step down. Their differences reached a peak in 2014: Saleh loyalists aligned with Houthi forces in their takeover of Sana’a in September, Hadi included Saleh on a UN Security Council sanctions list in November, and Saleh responded by expelling Hadi from the party.

Hadi’s supporters had argued that he should succeed Saleh as the head of the GPC in accordance with its internal regulations. Saleh, however, appointed Sadiq Abu Ras as his new deputy, so the leadership of the GPC in Sana’a went to him following the former president’s death in 2017. High-ranking GPC members outside of Yemen continued to treat Hadi as the party’s chairman, entrenching the split.

Failed efforts have been made to reunify and strengthen the party. During 2018 and 2019, GPC leaders in Cairo and Jeddah tried unsuccessfully to reorganize the party’s ranks, but its internal leadership is irrevocably split. Those who recognized Hadi as the president are known as the GPC abroad, and they do not recognize the leadership of Abu Ras in Sana’a. There is a third group as well – those that support Ahmad Ali Saleh, the former president’s eldest son who is under de facto house arrest in the UAE. The GPC is also facing competition from other quarters. Tareq Saleh, the former president’s nephew, has established a Political Bureau for the National Resistance forces that he leads on the West Coast, rather than attempting to revive the GPC or operate under its banner.

Currently, the speakers of both Yemeni parliaments, Yahya al-Ra’i in Sana’a (allied with the Houthi movement) and Sultan al-Barakani (allied with the internationally recognized government), are both high-ranking members of the GPC, holding the rank of assistant secretary-general.

Members of the GPC are being pulled in different directions, deeping the party’s fragmentation. The GPC was unable to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founding in Yemen, as it was stopped by local authorities from carrying out any celebratory activities in Sana’a and Taiz. Some GPC leaders met in a lackluster celebration in Cairo with former president Saleh’s son Madin to discuss efforts to unify the party.

In Sana’a, GPC chairman Abu Ras was explicitly threatened in late July with assassination by Abdulsalam Jahaf, a high-ranking member of the Houthi movement, the GPC’s supposed ally in the de facto government in Sana’a. The threat was made because Abu Ras refused Houthi demands to expel Ahmad Ali Saleh from his position as deputy chairman, a position that he had taken over after the killing of his father by the Houthis in 2017. Since that time, restrictions on the GPC’s activities have been tightened in the north, and several GPC leaders who were unable to escape have been detained. The GPC’s headquarters, assets, and media arm were also taken over, and now take a line close to the Houthis, forbidden from articulating their own rhetoric or policies.

Fayeqah al-Sayid, an Assistant Secretary-General in the GPC, said that the number of party members in Yemen and abroad is almost 7 million, but many have been fought over by other powers and are no longer operationally linked to the GPC. Still, former GPC members make up a majority of the public sector bureaucracy across Yemen, though many have given up the party in order to maintain their positions. Others who have maintained pubic loyalty to the GPC have been systematically removed.

The de facto authorities in Sana’a are still theoretically based on an alliance between the GPC and the Houthi movement, with the public announcement of their alliance made through the formation of the Supreme Political Council at the end of 2016. But the GPC has never held the presidency of the council, despite an initial agreement between the two parties to rotate the post every six months. Members of the GPC who are ministers in the Sana’a government are not the actual decision-makers in their ministries; each has a Houthi deputy who wields more authority than the minister himself.

Meanwhile, year after year the role of the GPC in peace negotiations receded; it was only formally represented in the Kuwait peace talks in 2016. Afterward, its members participated in negotiations in a personal capacity, and not as representatives of the GPC. The GPC in Sana’a became a subordinate to the Houthis, rather than an ally.

Forty years after its founding, the GPC has become nothing more than a legacy for its members; those who remain in high-level leadership positions now rely primarily on personal networks and the experience they gained working in the GPC during Saleh’s regime. The party’s structures, resources, and activities are weaker than ever.

The GPC, or what remains of it, might be the only force that operates through implicit consensus between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, with two different wings allied with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is a non-ideological political party, unlike other Yemeni political parties, that are an extension of international, regional, or religious ideologies. Its aging membership, the divisions between its various wings, the loss of its financial resources, the restrictions imposed upon it by Houthi authorities, and its inability to protect its members will, with time, push what remains of its organizational structure into other parties. The GPC is losing its way, cut off from its grassroots and unable to take a unified position. Forces that are more cohesive, powerful, and youthful will now take over from the GPC, a party that ruled for decades but is now unable to protect itself.

This analysis is part of a series of publications produced by the Sana’a Center and funded by the government of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. The series explores issues within economic, political and environmental themes, aiming to inform discussion and policymaking related to Yemen that foster sustainable peace. Views expressed within should not be construed as representing the Sana’a Center or the Dutch government.