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Death of a leader: Where next for Yemen’s GPC after murder of Saleh?

Ali Abdullah Saleh built his party in his image - but with his departure it is left even more split and with no sense of direction
Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, pictured here in August 2017 (AFP)

SANAA - The end, when it came for Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, was swift. Fleeing Sanaa, his convoy was hit by a grenade and sniper attack at a checkpoint supervised by Houthi gunmen.

Only days earlier the 75-year old had been an ally of his Houthi killers, before seeking common cause with their opponents, the Saudi-led coalition.

Saleh’s body was taken away in the back of a pick-up vehicle, while thousands took to the streets of the capital to celebrate his demise on 4 December.

But those who backed the General People's Congress (GPC) now faced a hard choice: stay loyal to their dead leader and attempt to hide, or switch allegiance and proclaim loyalty to the Houthis.

How to stay alive in Sanaa

The GPC, founded by Salaeh as a nationalist movement in 1982, has dominated Yemen politics for the best part of three decades. 

Adeeb, who asked his real name not be used for his own safety, is a key figure in the party. He had worked alongside its leaders, including Saleh, in Sanaa for 18 years and is a member of its general committee.

But after Saleh’s death, he pledged allegiance to the Houthis - and kept his position. He is not alone: thousands of GPC members have backed the Houthis during the past few weeks for their own safety.

A Houthi fighter on a tank celebrates the death of Saleh in Sanaa in December 2017 (Reuters)
"I was proud of Saleh,” said Adeeb, “and did not want him to meet a bad end. But his mistake was that he decided to fight the Houthis."  

Adeeb was among those who named Sadeq Amin Abu Rass, a former agriculture minister, as new leader of the GPC on 14 January.

Tellingly, the announcement condemned Saudi "aggression", said that the party would keep resisting the Riyadh-led coalition  - but made no mention of the Houthis nor Saleh’s killers.

Adeeb said that Abu Rass is supervised by the Houthis and that the GPC, in return, still participates in the rebel government based in Sanaa. Only a few members of the GPC had fled.

'I was proud of Saleh and did not want him to meet a bad end. But his mistake was that he decided to fight the Houthis'

- Adeeb, GPC member

"Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by the Houthis. If we follow his direction and resist the Houthis, we will meet the same end as Saleh. So we prefer to support the strongest force on the ground."

Last year, the Ministry of Human Rights, part of the government forces fighting the rebels, said that there were more than 14,000 detainees in Houthi-held facilities and that many had been tortured to death.

Adeeb added: "The most important thing for us is that we and our families stay safe. We do not want to flee Sanaa and live as displaced people for the sake of anyone."

The power vacuum

The GPC was built around Saleh - but like all parties focused on one figure, it now faces a vacuum with his removal.

Even before Saleh’s death, the party was split in two. One half of the party is now led by Abu Rass in Sanaa.

The other, under the leadership of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the current Yemeni president and Saleh’s rival, is based in Aden and Riyadh and supports the Saudi coalition.

A rally backing Saleh, held in Sanaa in August 2017 (AFP)
A third branch has also emerged since the death of Saleh. It backs his son Ahmed, who is based in the United Arab Emirates and faces international sanctions. He has vowed to lead a campaign against the Houthis.

In Yemen itself the group is based in government areas, but while it opposes the Houthis, it has yet to throw its full weight behind the Saudi-led coalition.

There is no semblance of coordination nor relations between the three groups.

Mohammed al-Dailami, a Houthi political analyst and supervisor at a Houthi radio station, believes that the GPC died with Saleh.

The GPC under Saleh, he said, never had the system in place to deal with organisational fundamentals such as succession, and was instead focused on his personal power.

Dailami said that there was no system in place to deal with a succession to Saleh because he was everything to the party and directed it as he saw appropriate. Saleh, for example, made appointments while party members sat around chewing qat, Yemen’s popular narcotic leaf.

The power vacuum has been made worse by the death of other key GPC figures, including Aref al-Zouka, the GPC's secretary-general, during the battle for Sanaa.

Saleh made appointments while party members sat around chewing qat, Yemen’s popular narcotic leaf

"There are no supporters of the GPC," Dailami said. “The supporters of GPC were originally the supporters of Saleh himself. They gave up their political work for the GPC after Saleh's death.”

Since Saleh’s death, he said, some supporters had fled but others, who denounced Saleh when he turned towards Saudi Arabia, stayed and were now trying to build what he termed a “real party”.

“We are willing to accept them as partners in our government," Dailami added.

What about Saleh's nephew?

But while Saleh has gone, one surviving member of the GPC leadership still remains: Tareq Saleh, nephew to the former president and head of Saleh's special security forces.

Tareq Saleh at the Republican Palace in Sanaa in January 2011 (Reuters)
When Saleh announced his opposition to the Houthis in December 2017, it was Tareq who led the fight against the rebels in and around Sanaa.

Dailami described such military forces as a show, orchestrated by Saleh to draw funds from his new Saudi allies. His former fighters were now, he said, “fighting shoulder to shoulder with Ansar Allah [the Houthis] to liberate Yemen from Saudi occupation".

Reports even said that Tareq had been killed alongside his uncle. But he escaped from Sanaa and surfaced in Shabwa, from where he released a video message on 11 January, calling for an end to the war.

"We are with the will of the leader [Saleh],” Tareq said, “based on dialogue and an end to the war and the lifting the blockade on Yemenis." He now lives under the protection of coalition forces at a military camp in Aden.

But Tareq’s presence has sparked disquiet. Pro-government forces have voiced their concern, as have many members of the Southern Movement, which wants independence for southern Yemen and condemn him as a killer who allied himself with the Houthis for several years before switching sides.

The Movement has set up eight checkpoints on the main road that leads to the military camp where Tareq lives as a show of force and demanded that coalition forces in Aden explain his presence. Neither the coalition nor the government has commented.

A member of the Southern Movement in Aden, speaking to MEE on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to media, said that Tareq should face trial.

"We should not make a hero from a killer who fought us for more than two years and killed our children and friends. If Tareq wants to fight with us, he should ask forgiveness from all martyrs' families.

"The south is full of men and we do not need killers to support us. We can accept the women and children of Saleh's family in Aden but we cannot receive the killers in the peaceful city."

The only way GPC can reform

But Zaher Ateya, a GPC journalist based in Shabwa, said that Tareq Saleh had risked his life during the past few weeks fighting the Houthis and that he should be forgiven for his previous pro-Houthi support.

"Nowadays, Tareq is in the south and our government should welcome anyone who comes from Sanaa to encourage others to leave Sanaa and join the government.

"Tareq's new role with the government will face hard criticism, but I believe that finally the UAE will support him to join the war against the Houthis."

For many in the GPC, unity will only come, as with so many other aspects of Yemeni life, when the war ends and the country returns to something akin to normality. “Then we can obey one leadership,” said Adeeb

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