The former ruling party in Yemen, the General People’s Congress (GPC), has not left the political field. According to the Gulf initiative, power was transferred from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to his vice-president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. However, Saleh retained significant influence as the head of the GPC, which still has a large base of affiliates and plans to continue exercising a major role in Yemen’s future. In Sanaa, the former president’s picture crowns the GPC headquarters, which is located in one of the capital’s major streets. But a large question mark hovers over Saleh’s political future in view of the international sanctions that have just been imposed on him.
Some Yemeni opposition forces charge that the fall of Sanaa to the Houthis on 21 September was the product of a pact between Saleh and Houthi leaders. People close to Saleh deny the claim out of hand. They argue that Saleh no longer possesses the means or authority to make any such deals.
Following the imposition of UN sanctions on Saleh, President Hadi was expelled from the GPC general secretariat amidst leaks that he had been involved in incurring the sanctions against his predecessor. Senior party leaders deny this emphatically. Hadi had not been “ousted” in the political sense. His dismissal was purely a procedural matter related to the internal organisation of the party, they maintain.
Ahram Online met with GPC Assistant Secretary-General Yasser Al-Awadi, the number two man in the party. He is also the head of his party’s parliamentary bloc and one of the most prominent figures in the inner circles of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In this exclusive interview, Al-Awadi expresses his party’s views on some of the salient issues and problems Yemen faces at this complex juncture.
Is this a moment unique in Yemeni history?
It is an important moment, but I would not go so far as to describe it as unique. Yemen has undergone similar crises and we have grown accustomed to things of this sort in our political history. But this time the situation seems complicated and we are not sure of the mechanism that will lead us out of it. However, we in the GPC are working with all other political forces that might work with us.
What are the political forces that can work together to solve the crisis?
With no intent to dismiss others, the major political forces are the GPC, the Islah (the Yemeni Congregation for Reform), which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, and the Ansar Allah, which is the Houthis’ organisation. And there is a fourth party, which is President Hadi, who has become a player in and of himself.
Do you see Yemen in the current phase has having a government with more than one head? President Hadi has power and influence, but so too does former President Saleh.
Frankly, yes. There are two heads of power and influence, but not in the way you mentioned. Real power is currently divided. Most of it is in the hands of the Houthis and the other part is in Hadi’s hands. It is divided between those two. As for President Saleh, he is out of power. Now he is the head of a political party, just like Mohammed Al-Yadoumi, head of the Islah, or Yasin Numan, head of the Socialist Party.
What are your party’s plans for the future? What about the elections, for example?
That’s what we want ... elections. But it looks like the GPC is the only political player that wants elections and is working to make them happen.
The other parties are not?
That’s right. It’s very unfortunate, but they do not want elections. In fact, they are trying to obstruct elections and to extend the power-sharing phase, as based on distorted criteria instead of popular criteria. The aim is to prolong the interim phase. This is what the Peace and Partnership Agreement was about. That agreement was struck between President Hadi and the Houthis. The other parties that signed it were no more than accessories for the agreement; they had no say or input in it.
You were a key partner in the Gulf initiative. Has the Peace and Partnership Agreement swept aside that initiative?
Frankly, the Gulf initiative was not swept aside by the Peace and Partnership Agreement. What swept it aside was the post-2011 authority that deliberately departed from it or gradually abandoned it. According to that initiative, elections should have been held within two years. But they never happened. There were certain steps that should have been taken within the framework of the initiative itself at the outset of the phase, but they never took place at all. During the national dialogue, the political forces that are in disarray or that are afraid of the elections or that lack confidence in their ability to win pushed hard for a new phase on top of the initial two years. Indeed, it was extended for another year. Then came the Peace and Partnership Agreement, the extension of which established another year to President Hadi and an extension to the international representative, Jamal Bin Omar, and of course to the Houthis who themselves are extending eastwards and westwards.
When one reads the newspapers close to the Houthis one find leaks to the effect that they were behind the takeover of influential figures in power. This, on top of the presence of their forces in the street and their checkpoints, gives the impression that they are a state within a state. What is your opinion?
The Houthis are a political movement. Like all movements they have ambitions to reach power. Any of them that speak about being in the service of God and the like are talking a lot of rubbish. Religious movements pursue their political interests, Al-Qaeda included.
But what I have to say is this: before President Saleh handed over power in 2011 we had a state. I can’t say that it was a strong state. But at least it was a state that extended its authority over the country to a certain extent and its performance was acceptable and even improving a bit. However, the crisis of 2011 turned it into a weak state. What happened over the course of three years was the slaughtering of this weak state by the partners in government who took over power.
Frankly, I don’t exonerate President Hadi from having a share in the responsibility for this. The same applies to the Islah Party and its partners. Even the Socialist Party had a hand in this process. Each side was pursuing its own ends. The Islah was determined to further weaken the state and to wear down and destroy the army in order to put its militias in its place. President Hadi probably had his own calculations, as did the Socialists. The Southern Movement believed that the weaker the central state was the more they could assert their demands in the south. The Houthis also contributed to this process. The weaker the state, the more they could advance.
I recall that at the height of the 2011 crisis, the armed forces under President Saleh were fighting on more than 20 fronts. They were fighting the Houthis in Safyan, Al-Malahiz and parts of eastern Saada. They were fighting Al-Qaeda and Islah in Arhab and in Nahm in order to destroy their camps around Sanaa. They were fighting in Taiz and Hadramat. Yet, all those forces combined were unable to advance so much as an inch on the field.
What happened this year is that the Houthis advanced in a vacuum — they didn’t defeat the state. They just came to take over Sanaa and they found nothing in their way because there was no state to fight them.
There are rumours of deals between you and the Houthis and that what happened was with your support, or after at least you gave them a green light. What do you have to say about this?
Such talk is shameful and untrue. They simply want to shift the blame for their failure onto others. If there had been an alliance between us and the Houthis we would have made it known. We would have had no reason to feel embarrassed. On the contrary, we feel that we learned about political alliances from them. In 2009, they allied against us with the Houthis, the Islah and the JMP (Joint Meeting Parties). And they did it again in 2010 and 2011, with written agreements. Even in the cabinet that was headed by Basindawa, they were members and they called it “the forces of the revolution”.
From that day in 2011 until 21 September, the day of the fall of Sanaa, we have only recognised two revolutions: the 26 September Revolution and the 14 October Revolution, which is the 2011 revolution. The so-called 21 September revolution and any other forthcoming revolution, whatever they call it, has nothing to do with revolution. We do not recognise it. But what can we do? We are not the state or the regime. They destroyed the state.
We have said many times that we support legitimacy, whatever it is, even though its moral and political cover, or part of it, is gone and its legal and constitutional framework ended with the end of the Gulf initiative. The imposition of international sanctions against Yemeni citizens and invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter has stripped away the last fragments of moral cover. Even so, we are still prepared to stand by and safeguard this legitimacy, in spite of the fact that the authority that claims legitimacy is in a position where it needs to defend itself.
But do you also not need to reconsider what happened? Are you not responsible for it as well? Surely what has occurred confirms that there was something wrong and that something had to change?
After 2011, we had a plan based on two primary aims. The first was to protect the GPC, which we have largely succeeded in until this moment. The second was to keep the country from sliding in directions that would lead to greater losses. In this, frankly, we have failed. We were unable to stop them from destroying the army, whether the Republican Guard or the other armed forces that had been recovering, like the 1st Armoured Division, which was a national force, as opposed to the militias. Nor were we able to restrain President Hadi, his minister of defence, the Islah, Ali Mohsen or Hamid Al-Ahmar. However, we do have our plans and our alternatives, as a political party, at the national level. It involves bringing together political forces as partners in political action from among the forces that we can cooperate within order to, at least, safeguard what we can. Currently we are speaking with the Muslim Brothers in Islah, with Ansar Allah (the Houthis) and with President Hadi as well, in the interests of comprehensive national welfare, in order to forge the foundations for a broad-based national alliance between all political forces that seek to rescue the country from the dangers looming over it.
The dismissal of President Hadi as secretary-general of the GPC: Was this a strategic move or a strategic mistake?
He wasn’t dismissed. President Hadi was not dismissed. What happened was that we needed a secretary general that would serve purely and exclusively the party. So we elected a secretary-general in the same way as occurred when Abdel Qader Bajamal was suffering health problems and Hadi was brought in as secretary-general.
But the fact is that there had been some sharp reactions and anger against Hadi among GPC members. There were two reasons for this. The first was that his organisational performance was poor. During his two years as secretary-general, he did not preside over a single general secretariat meeting. There was also general anger against him in his capacity as president. He was unable to protect the nation or its political interests, let alone the welfare of the GPC and its rights, among which are its initiatives and other things. Then there is the problem of evading elections, which is very dangerous. Legitimacy is eroding today. In the past, legitimacy eroded but we protected the system. Now, as legitimacy erodes, the state and nation are eroding with it. The regime is gone, the state is weakening and the country is being gnawed away at from the edges.
Your regional allies: Are they the same as those who worked with you before the sanctions?
Our first source of strength is the Yemeni people. They are our strategic allies. As for regionally, we have excellent relations with our brothers in Egypt since the Adly Mansour presidency, following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood there. During the Morsi era, Egypt’s relations with the whole world were bad. Today, the situation is entirely different. Egypt, from the perspective of the Yemeni people, is the mother of the republican system as a nation and a people. We don’t deny that our relations with Saudi Arabia are good. This relationship will always remain a necessary one for anybody living in Yemen. Unfortunately, however, this relationship is not as warm as is the case with the relationship with Egypt.
So there is cause for optimism regarding your country, in spite of all that has happened?
I can only be optimistic.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly.