The General People’s Congress (Al-Mu’tamar al-Sha’bi al-’Am) is a vestige of the pre-unification Yemen Arab Republic, formed in the context of feuding parties struggling for control within and between the northern and southern Yemeni states.
Dialogue at high levels of government resulted in the promise of a National Charter (Mithaq Watani), to be arrived at by means of convening a General People’s Congress (Dresch, 2000, p. 154).
The resulting document, drafted in 1980, was vague and general in terms, but by 1982 created the precedent and form of the GPC: less a political party as such and more an “alternative to party politics.”
An oft-quoted Yemeni joke involves two men discussing politics. One claims to be a member of the GPC, and the other insists, “Yes, yes, but which party?” (Dresch & Haykel, 1995, p 407).
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Nonetheless, with the 1990 unification of the Yemens, the GPC became a political party among others, specifically the southern Yemeni Socialist Party, an assortment of smaller parties, and, a few months later, Islah.
The interim government established by agreement for 1990-1993, composed equally of northern and southern representatives, was rearranged to the dismay of the south by the first parliamentary elections in 1993.
The GPC took forty-one percent of the vote and Islah, with the blessing and some say the collusion of the GPC, took twenty-one percent, including many of the votes that the southern YSP had counted on taking (Clark, 2010, p. 141).
The fallout of this election was the 1994 civil war, which saw the crushing of the southern forces, and the YSP, frustrated with the political workings of the new Yemeni nation, boycotted the 1997 elections, leaving the field open for GPC to take 187 seats in parliament (Clark, p. 269).
This pattern of domination continued, with the GPC taking seventy-five to eighty percent of votes in the 2006 local elections (Phillips, 2010, p. 245). However, viewing the GPC solely in terms of its electoral successes leads to a simplistic analysis.
Equally important is the economic aspect of the GPC, which has often been described as a system of patronage. In the pre-unification days of the GPC, regional development in the north was promoted by Local Development Agencies (LDAs), which later became known as co-operatives.
Much of the GPC’s organizing power was built through these co-operatives and with the plunging in oil prices, for many, a job with the GPC or its affiliates was the only employment available (Clark, p. 123).
In many ways, this patronage system has continued until the present, with the GPC offering material or monetary incentives to political rivals or troublemakers rather than confronting them, as in the case of Tariq al-Fadhli, one of the generation of Arab Afghans who fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
Upon his return, al-Fadhli continued the tactics of jihad he had learned in Afghanistan, applying them anew to the godless heathens of the south of Yemen.
Once the central government no longer had any use for his attacks on the south, leading members of the GPC placed al-Fadhli under luxurious house arrest until he was “rehabilitated” as a new man, his historic family lands restored and his pockets filled with a stipend from the capital (Clark, p. 164).
The political career of the GPC is defined by that of its best-known member, Ali Abdullah Salleh, former president of Yemen, and one of its greatest challenges to date has been traversing the rising tide of frustration with Saleh’s rule, which led in 2011 to his removal from power.
In early January 2011, the GPC-dominated Yemeni parliament gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment abolishing presidential term limits and allowing Saleh to remain in office past the expected 2013 end of his administration.
In a debate framed in terms of national security and extension of the democratic mandate, Sultan Barakani, head of the GPC, decided that Saleh should be allowed to remain in office because “[Saleh] is accepted by everybody inside and outside the country.
The opposition decried the amendments, characterizing them as destroying “what remains of a democratic foundation” in Yemen. A month later, in the face of public outcry, Saleh issued a statement denying any term extension or constitutional amendment.
This decision followed after a 2001 set of amendments that extended the presidential term from five years to seven.
Developments in this vein led to worried speculation about Saleh’s intent to remain in office or to pass leadership to his son, an allegation he heatedly denied (Phillips, p. 238).
During the 2011 revolution, while the GPC as a whole was steadfast in its support of Saleh, it was not without internal schism, and was increasingly so as the revolution wore on.
Barakani, then deputy leader of the GPC, met with youthful protestors in Sana’a in an effort to persuade them into dialogue with the administration, rather than confrontation through the rival National Council.
Likewise, at the September 2011 conference of the Yemeni Clerics Association, at Saleh’s urging, pro-GPC ‘ulema issued a fatwa condemning any protests against the regime and urging citizens to respect their “pledge of allegiance.”
However, as early as February 2011, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, head of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, had withdrawn his membership from the GPC because of his opposition to attacks on protestors.
In March 2011, al-Ahmar was joined by the Yemeni ambassador to the United Nations, the human rights minister, leading Muslim clerics, and the ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, and China, all of whom left their position and/or the GPCin protest.
Dissent within the GPC did not begin with the 2011 revolution, though it did perhaps reach a climax in that period. In 2005, some hundred GPC members published a statement protesting the reduction of fuel subsidies in Yemen, and, while the legislation did pass, the members’ internal opposition was noted.
Later that year and in 2006, sixteen reformers within the GPC formed YemenPAC (Yemeni Parliamentarians Against Corruption) to battle corruption within the government and especially in the area of elections, succeeding in the establishment of a stronger Anticorruption Law (Phillips, p. 241).
Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, in his capacity as GPC Secretary-General beginning in 1995, was the source of many reformist initiatives, especially in the fields of trade and corruption (Dresch, p. 203).
Saleh’s continuing influence in Yemeni politics and his exemption from prosecution as part of the GCC-brokered power transition deal is a continuing point of tension in Yemeni society.
While protests in Sana’a in support of “completing the revolution” have continued since 2011, an unprecedented visit from the UN Security Council in January 2013 led to a call by politically independent youths for renewed protests demanding the prosecution of Saleh and his aides, as well as “a return of funds stolen” by the former regime.
Thousands of members of the group Youth of the Revolution marched along Zubairi Street, which divides Sana’a’s northern and southern sides, chanting, “International Security Council, our demand is basic, no immunity and no guarantee for Saleh and his aides” and “The people want the prosecution of the killer.” Abdel Wahid al-Najjar.
The Muslim preacher who gave the Friday sermon to crowds in the street, announced that “we did not have a revolution in order to move the presidential palace from Saba’in [Street] to Sitin [Street],” the location of transitional president Hadi’s home.
In other cities around the country, protestors gathered, in northwestern Hajja to demand the dismissal of unpopular governor Ali al-Qaisi and in the south to call attention to the demands of Hirak.
In addition, members of a southern youth organization submitted a letter to the UN representatives detailing the history and current situation of the southern provinces.
The UN delegation arrived with the intention of showing support for the transition process in Yemen and conducted a closed-door session with President Hadi.
UN special envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar said the visit shows a real interest in “pushing the reconciliation and removing obstacles that are hindering the implementation of the points of the Gulf initiative,” a statement which France 24 Arabic interpreted as a thinly-veiled reference to Saleh’s continuing influence.
However, following a Security Council suggestion of sanctions against Saleh because of his continuing influence, Saleh supporters took to the streets in February 2013 in Sana’a’s al-Sabeen Square in a show of solidarity and strength.
However, by the third anniversary of the revolution in February 2014, thousands took to the streets in Yemen’s northern provinces with prominent figures such as Tawakkul Karman calling for sanctions on Saleh as a “war criminal and spoiler” of the transitional process.
Weeks later, the Security Council put forth a draft resolution imposing sanctions including a travel ban and asset freeze on those who obstruct or undermine Yemen’s political transition, commit “attacks on essential infrastructure or acts of terrorism,” or violate human rights.
The values and stands of the GPC are often difficult to determine, given the diverse nature of its makeup and its erstwhile status as arm of the former president, but a good indication of its earlier ideological status can be found in the contents of the National Charter, which saw the establishment of the party before unification.
The Charter portrays the GPC as a product of its Arab nationalist context, devoted to Arabism in belonging and unity, necessarily striving for complete Arab unity, and loyal to God, the nation, the revolution, and unity.
Among other provisions of the Charter are keeping to the rule of Islamic shari’a, provision of the freedom for which God gave people a natural inclination, pursuit of equality in opportunities for all, and pushing the economic freedom necessary to unleash the power of the individual (‘Isa, 2012, p. 139).
Upon the establishment of the GPC as a political party, its goals were stated as “national unity as a basic pillar of the unity of Arab nationalism, development, tolerance, and moderation.”
A later popular slogan of the party reinforces their values: “No freedom without democracy, no democracy without protection, no protection without application of the power of the law” (Safi al-Din, 2012, p. 49).
A distinct difference can be ascertained between these early statements and those of GPC member and new president Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, who wrote at length in a recent statement about national unity, rebuilding a new Yemen, and the revolutionary spirit, but did not once mention Islam or the now-passé ideology of Arabism.
As Hadi attempts to move the country into a new era and redefine the GPC as a party rather than a cult of personality, it remains to be seen whether he can successfully challenge the inbuilt systems of patronage which have defined it for so long.
Yemeni voter turn-out for his uncontested election was high despite Houthi and Hirak opposition to it, in part because of a fatwa issued the day before mandating voting as an Islamic duty.
Changes in the military have been integral to Hadi’s reformation of the party and the government, especially through a December 2012 decree which drastically reorganized the Ministry of Defense.
The decree disbanded the Republican Guard led by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, dismissed other relatives of Saleh’s from military command, and disbanded Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar’s First Armored Division.
Beyond the obvious challenges posed by bringing together disparate political parties to form a coherent national government, Hadi also must follow through on the GCC agreement’s stipulation of 26 percent female representation in government in the face of increasingly skeptical female activists (Yemen’s Transition, p. 2).
Female representation remains a goal and one vigorously championed by Yemeni women currently in government positions, including Rashida al-Mahdani, president of the National Committee for Women, who issued a public statement to Zindani saying that men who opposed female representation in government should look to the historic examples of Fatima and Queen Arwa.
Those who fear dissent with the presence of a woman among male representatives, Mahdani wrote, must remember that such a woman is “his sister or his mother or his daughter or his wife” and master himself.
The GPC maintains its media presence primarily through Al Methaq, its title a reference to the Mithaq Watani (National Charter) whose composition was the original purpose behind the creation of the GPC.
Part of the mission of Al Methaq is the publishing of a newspaper by the same name, weekly since 1982. In addition, the newspaper’s website also features television programs on various news-related topics, including messages from the president and pieces about the crimes of the Harak southern secessionists.
Other GPC online fora include Almotamar, an online news source issued by the GPC beginning in 2003 under the leadership of Abdul Karim al-Iryani as the first Yemeni non-print newspaper.
Almotamar began its publishing under the supervision of the Department of Economic Development, since then has become a part of the Department of Information, and claims to be among the top 100 Arabic-language news websites.
Their news stories are run under the slogan, “From Yemen to the world,” and are published widely on Twitter.
Like Al Methaq, the 22 May (22 Mayo) newspaper is a GPC-affiliated weekly newspaper, but began its production in 1990 with the unification of Yemen. Again like Al Methaq, the web presence of 22 May is largely a complement to its more important printed version.
Finally, the Charter Institute for Training, Research, and Studies (Ma’hd al-Mithaq lil-Tadriib wa al-Dirasaat wa al-Buhuth) also maintains a web presence with a news source, featuring a more scholarly array of information, including selected translations of pertinent foreign news articles and opinion pieces.
The GPC has created one Facebook page in English and several of varying levels of activity in Arabic.