Facing perhaps its biggest crisis yet, Yemen's ruling party of over three decades, the General People's Congress (GPC), is in desperate need of reform. As one of the only ruling parties to have survived a widespread Arab Spring uprising, it is now navigating uncharted territory. While the party and its leader, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are doing infinitely better than their imprisoned, exiled, dead, or dismantled counterparts across the Middle East and North Africa, the party's continued relevance and prosperity is by no means guaranteed, a reality to which it is struggling to adjust.
Formed in 1982 by Saleh, then president of the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), the GPC was created to counter the rise of dissident leftist groups, like the National Democratic Front. Over time, the GPC grew into the country's dominant political force, winning the most seats in the first national elections held after the unification of the YAR and the southern People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990. In the last parliamentary elections held in Yemen, in 2003, the party won 76 percent of seats. But, by the time the Arab Spring broke out the GPC was more a collection of powerful elites living off access to government coffers than a political party in the democratic sense of the term. Hardly bound to public opinion, the GPC ruled with relative impunity and only occasional resistance from the country's pseudo opposition coalition (the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP). In hindsight, it is not surprising that the party became a primary target of revolutionaries.
Yemen's popular uprising that began in January 2011 brought millions of protesters to the streets. Activists called for the "fall of the regime," and events often turned bloody, with more than 2,000 deaths reported by Yemen's human rights minister. In November 2011, after many delays, Saleh finally signed an internationally brokered Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement to relinquish the presidency. In February 2012, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was elected in a one-man race called for under the GCC transition plan. Over this turbulent period the GPC's popularity, membership, and monopoly on government resources took a predictably hard hit. Now, with fewer spoils to go around and the need to mobilize support, the GPC will have to evolve into a more self-sustaining entity.
Nevertheless, in contrast to its regional counterparts, the GPC emerged from the Arab Spring remarkably intact. The party maintained a vast organizational network, with millions of followers, and a huge media operation. Through Hadi, it held onto the presidency and half of the cabinet posts. Saleh, who remains president of the party, received immunity for crimes committed during the uprising as part of the GCC deal. The GPC also indirectly retained considerable military heft through Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, who will continue to head the powerful Republican Guard until a millitary restructuring, announced in December, is implemented. But while appearing outwardly strong, the party has started to unravel from the inside.
Yemen's political crisis brought longstanding divisions within the GPC to the surface, as members find themselves debating the party's future for the first time in decades. Although some members deny the problem, the GPC is seemingly split into two camps. Saleh and his hardline supporters, like loyalist member of parliament (MP) Sultan Barakani, believe that the party is structurally sound and in a position to rebound quickly. The more progressive branch, led by former Prime Minister Abdul Kareem al-Eryani and backers of President Hadi, stress that the party must learn from the events of 2011 and hint at the need for reform. A primary point of contention between these liberal and conservative wings is who should lead the party.
"Saleh is not a normal President for the GPC, he is the founding President. If he leaves, many members will leave the party, " says Yasser Awadi, a young GPC MP, alluding to the patronage networks that Saleh has constructed over the years. The other claim that Saleh supporters make is that there is currently no one capable of replacing him. "Dancing on the heads of snakes," as Saleh famously quipped about his 33-year rule, required managing technocrats, tribes, militants, the international community, and more. Hard shoes to fill according to Barakani, "He has the charisma, he has the experience to lead the party. If GPC wants a new leader they really have to search."
Abdul Qader al-Hilal, the mayor of Yemen's capital Sanaa since July 2012 and long-time GPC member, does not see the party's current structure as natural. "Normally in the third world, the President of the country is the president of the party," he says. Hilal and other Saleh skeptics admit that the former president deserves to be part of the GPC's future, but dispute the claim that party membership is contingent on Saleh's leadership. They argue that Hadi, given his work as president and backing from the international community, would make a preferable alternative. They also recognize the roadblock that Saleh poses to the party's recovery.
Saleh has become a symbol of the corruption, strong-handed tactics, and political games seen during his tenure; a reputation that the GPC must also shoulder. He is attracting the ire of the international community as well. During the U.N. Security Council's recent trip to Sanaa, which was aimed at encouraging the transition process, the British co-chair of the delegation, Sir Mark Grant, singled out Saleh when asked to specify potential transition "spoilers." Last week, this view gained official backing from the Security Council, which released a statement accusing Saleh of "interference in the transition." The council, under a resolution passed in June 2012, is empowered to act against those obstructing implementation of the GCC imitative, a move that could involve sanctions.
For his part, Saleh has yet to show much willingness to step aside. Despite telling the Saudi Gazzette newspaper in a January interview that, "I am now Ali Abdullah Saleh, an ordinary Yemeni citizen," he continues to participate in everyday political life: making speeches, scheduling public appearances, and running his own media outlets. People close to the former president say that this apparently insatiable desire to stay relevant is as much a product of Saleh's genuine belief that he is doing what is best for Yemen, as it is an attempt to preserve his own position and legacy.
With Hadi and his camp hesitant to make an active move for the GPC presidency, the leadership deadlock looks set to continue until -- barring extraordinary incidents such as assassination -- party support shifts decidedly to one side, or the international community finds a way of pressuring Saleh into leaving. In the meantime, the GPC has another major hurdle to overcome.
The party is facing an identity crisis of sorts. Lacking any real ideology and having lost its traditional primacy, the party must find a new way of defining its political role. Once again, opinion falls along two lines. The hardliners tend to frame the GPC as defenders against Islamic rule. Barakani, for example, emphasizes that "the only thing that prevents the Muslim Brotherhood from taking full power in Yemen is the GPC." This is no doubt an exaggeration, but one that plays on a palpable fear among many liberal Yemenis. Islah, the country's main Islamist party, made up of both Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative Salafi elements, saw its standing skyrocket during the Arab Spring and was given a greater number of posts in the transitional government than it had ever held before. A simple GPC message of opposition to Islah could appeal to those who view Islah as a threat and, though not fond of the GPC, see few viable alternatives.
Other GPC members, rather than highlighting the threat of Islah, stress that the party has learned from the past and is ready to serve the Yemeni people. Hilal believes that the GPC is better prepared to understand the concerns of underrepresented groups like youth, who make up 75 percent of Yemen's population, and women. Whether or not the average youth or woman -- demographics all but excluded from the GPC's leadership -- agree with that assessment is debatable. Regardless, acknowledging that the GPC will likely have to broaden its support base could prove beneficial for the party.
Despite the GPC's shortcomings, opponents should not expect the party to collapse overnight. Nearly all GPC members, though divided on many issues, see the party as necessary for maintaining Yemen's delicate balance of power. They have a point. The GPC's sudden departure or decline could throw the country's political balance, patronage networks, and military into flux; a prospect of which many are wary. Even self-described independent and pro-revolutionary business professor Dr. Ahmed bin Mubarak, who has since been named secretary general of the upcoming National Dialogue Conference, agrees, "We need [the] GPC. The GPC is not just Saleh. I think we need balance in Yemen."
However, if the GPC wants to remain a long-term fixture of Yemen's power structure, it must undergo, as Hilal puts it, "a restructuring to deal with the changes that have happened." The second year of Yemen's transition period, which is ambitiously meant to include a comprehensive National Dialogue, a constitutional referendum, and February 2014 presidential elections, will be a critical test of the GPC's ability to enact such reform. One bold move would be to preemptively replace Saleh as party president, though this is a risk that no one in the party appears ready to take. Another, more realistic, way for the party to work through internal disputes, renew stagnant leadership ranks, and clarify its political platform would be to hold a party congress, which has not happened since 2005. There are rumors that the GPC is preparing to gather, but no official announcement has been made.
Neither of these steps would ensure the GPC's future success, but either would be a sign of progress. Until then, however, the party will continue to be, as one commentator phrased it, "a car without an engine," bound to lose its lead.
Tik Root is a freelance journalist based in Yemen whose writing has been published by The Atlantic, Aljazeera, and the Washington Post, among others. He tweets @TikRoot.