Ten years after the 2011 uprising and six years since the civil war outbreak in 2015, Yemen’s main, “old” political parties, the General People’s Congress (GPC) and Islah, are coping with a fragmented and deeply transformed country. On identity and alliance-making, Yemen’s political structure is traditionally marked by fluidity and pragmatism. Nevertheless, the weakening of old, Yemeni “national” parties deeply affects their current organisation and leadership as well as their relations with social, tribal bases and with parties’ armed wings- Meanwhile, newcoming actors from geographical peripheries are strengthening in post-uprising Yemen.
Especially during the 2011-2021 decade, violence has largely replaced politics: armed groups, which are often extensions of political parties themselves, have monopolized the country’s contemporary landscape. However, political parties will likely return to prominence. The GPC (or rather, what remains of it) and Islah are expected to play a pivotal role in the event of a comprehensive political settlement, as both have nationwide reach and political expertise. The two parties were at the forefront of the 2011 uprising (albeit on opposite sides); how have the GPC and Islah changed since then? How are their structure, leadership, local and tribal relations? What kind of relationships do they currently have with armed groups and regional powers?
The Trajectory of Yemen’s Multiparty Structure
Since 1994, the GPC and Islah have dominated the dysfunctional system of power which controlled Yemen through over-centralization and patronage: since 2002, the GPC has acted as the governing party and Islah as the opposition. Both the GPC and, to a lesser extent, Islah are composite formations: they were built as large umbrellas to outreach tribesmen as well as religious and local leaders, connecting resources and interests to central institutions.
The GPC has been divided into at least three major branches after the killing of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2017; in central and eastern governorates the GPC has lost support among tribes, who increasingly favour Islah (formally the Yemeni Congregation for Reform). Islah, which is ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, but also includes part of the Salafis and the conservative-business-tribal milieu, has increased its power among post-2011, internationally-recognized institutions. However, on the ground, the party lacks leadership and faces strong opposition from both Ansar Allah (the Houthis) and the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
Political parties are widely perceived to be responsible for Yemen’s political and economic fragility. Since their foundation, the GPC and Islah have called themselves respectively “congress” and “congregation”, not “parties”. Especially after 2011, political parties have become unpopular among Yemenis since they are perceived to be connected to partisanship, disagreements, and mismanagement. Gathering to protest against the rising devaluation of the Yemeni riyal at the end of 2020, demonstrators in Taiz chanted “Hey coalition and political parties, you have destroyed us!”.
Political Parties in the 2010s: Even Fewer National Players Than Before?
For main and “old” political parties, Yemen’s fragmentation has generated new challenges. Although supportive of national unity and present in most of the governorates, the GPC and Islah have never really been national parties, since they each retained specific geographical areas of influence; with the GPC gathering support mostly in Sanaa and the north while Islah grew throughout mostly Sunni Shafe’i-inhabited provinces, although also rallying Shia Zaydis. However, since 2011 , local leaders and alliances have begun to matter more than the (would-be) national parties in terms of leadership, political mobilization, and decision-making. This has occurred since Yemen’s political and military game started to be played along a local-external axis, involving local leaders, who are often tied to foreign patrons, or local agendas. This phenomenon bypasses the national level and, therefore, national parties.
Striking a political balance for Yemen currently means not only engaging with the “newcoming” parties and movements of the peripheries (including Ansar Allah; the Southern Movement; the Tihama Resistance Council, various Hadhrami tribal alliances), but also rebuilding national parties from the local ashes of the GPC and, to a lesser extent, Islah, while opening up to new groups and mobilization realities that have emerged after 2011. It is difficult to imagine how a comprehensive political settlement might succeed against a backdrop of political parties that do not represent — in terms of structure and leadership — a comprehensive Yemeni framework, and which are divided at both the national and local level into a patchwork of different territorial contexts with competing interests.
The GPC and Islah Ater 2011. Evolution and Regional Backers
As the former ruling party, the GPC was able to gain consensus and support beyond its base of Sanaa. However, the GPC’s robust membership was never meant to develop into a party that adheres to its principles, but rather it served as a network that protected former President Saleh’s personal interests and his circle. Islah, on the other hand, has historically maintained an organized hierarchy with strict membership requirements within Yemen. It also has an internationalized dimension and older roots than the GPC, with ties to the transnational Muslim Brotherhood.
Before the killing of Saleh in late 2017, a significant part of the GPC had been already amalgamated into the political structure of the de facto Ansar Allah’s authority in Sanaa, given the alliance of convenience between Saleh and the Houthis (2014-2017). As of 2021, three other main GPC components can be identified outside of Yemen: in Cairo (the mixed and dialogue-oriented wing), in Riyadh (the loyalists of the internationally recognized President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi), and in Abu Dhabi (those supporting Tareq Saleh, the former President’s nephew who is being groomed to lead the West Coast Forces). From a geopolitical perspective, the GPC is divided between a wing supported by Saudi Arabia and anchored to the national unity principle, and a more pragmatic group mostly operating on the Red Sea coast and backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This ongoing fragmentation trend is likely a result of the GPC’s lack of original ideology, as it was mainly built as an umbrella-party, a ´party-tribe` developed around Saleh’s leadership to support his rule through personal and foreign networks.
Islah, instead, was strengthened by the 2012-2014 political transition: it gained remarkable power in ministries and post-uprising institutions, and it remains the dominant force within internationally recognized institutions (although President Hadi belongs to the GPC). The Islah party has its origins dating back to the 1940s, when Yemeni university students in Egypt were exposed to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the group being founded in Yemen in the 1960s, it was only formally legalized in 1990. Islah is vocal about supporting a unified Yemen. One example of the importance of Islah to Saudi Arabia is that Islah’s Secretary General, Mohammed Abdullah Al Yadoumi, continues to live in Saudi Arabia, which supports the party (as does Qatar, too), despite Riyadh bans over the transnational Muslim Brotherhood. Although not an official leader, General Ali Mohsin Al Ahmar, Yemen’s Vice President and Deputy Commander of the armed forces, is currently the most influential guide for Islah, given his long-time linkages to the party and its related armed groups. At the local level, however, Islah is internally fragmented and lacks territorial organisation: in fact, the Muslim Brotherhood-wing prevails across Salafi segments in the absence of leadership, as occurs in Taiz. Despite public support, Turkey’s degree of political leverage on Islah remains unclear.
Yemen’s Political Parties. Stratified Identities and Loyalties
At first glance, political parties appear to be marginalized from everyday politics during the 2011-2021 decade. According to a 2019 survey by the Yemen Polling Center, 53% of Yemenis affirm they do not “deal at all” with political parties in their respective areas. 17% of those interviewed state they “act neither careful nor open” with political parties; meanwhile, 10% of Yemenis “lack trust” in political parties. Differences between northern and southern governorates are not as marked as expected given that Saleh’s government was a north-driven power: 57% of Yemenis living in southern regions affirm they do not “deal at all” with political parties, in comparison to 53% of people inhabiting northern governorates. The percentages of respondents from main cities who claim not to “deal at all” with parties stand at 48% of Sanaa’s residents, 49% of those living in Aden, and 63% of the citizens of Taiz.
Surely, the consequences of the uprising and of the subsequent civil war have shifted mobilization patterns — and popular perception — from party politics to armed confrontation. However, this is not the only possible answer. Yemen’s main and “old” political parties are built upon stratified identities and loyalties: for instance, tribal chiefs are often businessmen and military commanders who are related to, or even represent, a political party in Parliament or in a local authority. In Yemen, political parties usually seem to hide themselves behind pre-political identities: the most salient identities are often the most local and immediate ones—such as territorial, tribal or confessional—and these generally overshadow the others, included party affiliations.
GPC, Islah, and tribes. Long-Standing and Fluid Relations
After 2011, the GPC party lost its once-significant influence over tribes. As during the Saleh era, tribes continue to be paid to act as patrons of the party. Most of the tribes that were pro-Saleh, such as the Shaif family, now live in Saudi Arabia, where they receive large sums of money from the Kingdom. In order to rebuild influence over tribes, the Saudi-led coalition has provided financial support to Sheikh Mohamed Nagi Al-Shaif, former Chief Sheikh of the Bakeel tribal confederation, and other GPC figures (like the internationally recognized government speaker of Parliament, Sheikh Sultan Al-Barakani). GPC members receive these funds with the understanding that they will be used to strategically strengthen the party against the Houthis. However, in most cases, the money ultimately ends up in the pockets of individual GPC members, who use it for personal gain rather than for party’s interests on the ground. Crucially, the repeated misallocation of funds will likely result in the GPC’s failure to forge long-term tribal connections.
This dynamic contrasts with Islah, whose members tend not to pocket money meant for the party. The party continues to be active in society and education, establishing women networks, engaging with Salafis and Sufis, and funding charities and community projects. Islah maintains strong support in tribal areas across Yemen, particularly amongst Sunni tribes, though it has lost support in traditional strongholds, where it was dominant until the death of the Chief Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmar of the Hashed tribal confederation) in 2007. Since conflict broke out, tribes in Al-Baydha, Marib, and in some areas of Al-Jawf have received significant support from Islah or have become closely associated with the group: tribes who have resisted the Houthi presence, or that still embrace GPC values, are now increasingly siding with Islah, thus emphasizing the crisis of the former ruling party.
Which Kind of State? Balancing National Unity and Local Powers
The crisis of state institutions has slightly impacted the universal attitude of Yemeni political parties on centre-periphery relations. Both the GPC and Islah were, and remain, officially supportive of national unity. Throughout the Saleh regime, the GPC was the party of Sanaa-based institutions and the political arm of the President. Saleh devolved some powers to governors and local councils: the Local Authority Law was approved in 2000, but it was often used by Sanaa as a tool to exercise the central government’s will on the ground.
Since 2017, Tareq Saleh has attempted to coalesce anti-Houthi forces in the Tihama (the Red Sea coast): according to the Final Report of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen 2021, Saleh “strengthened his political and military control over the west coast with strong support from the United Arab Emirates, presenting a challenge both to President Hadi’s authority and to the Tihamah people’s quest for self-rule under a future federal structure”. Saleh’s area of influence is centred in Mokha, next to the Bab al-Mandab choke-point: this statelet could ultimately pursue institutional ambitions, as Saleh’s forces are also increasingly coming into conflict with Islah-related groups in the same territory.
In the outcome document of the National Dialogue Conference, drafted in 2014, Yemeni delegates agreed, in principle, on federalism. Islah has now become more favourable than in the past to a constitutional reform (many Southern governors belong or are close to Islah), but stresses the need for a centrally-driven institutional architecture.
Weakened Political Parties, Bourgeoning Armed Groups. Which Prospects for Demilitarization?
Both the GPC and Islah have unofficial military wings, often tribal militias, within the army and the security sector. After 2015, these military wings have increasingly hybridized on the ground, via auxiliary armed groups.In the GPC’s network, half of the disbanded Republic Guard is fighting with the Houthis, while a loyalist part has been rallied by Tareq Saleh in Mokha under the banner of the Guardians of the Republic (now West Coast Forces, including the more autonomous Giants Brigades and the Tihama Resistance). Tareq Saleh is said to be drawing on locals from Taiz city who used to support his uncle, thus creating more tensions in Taiz amongst pro-government groups, dominated there by Islahi figures. The disbanded 1st Armoured Division of the army, which is led by General Ali Mohsin, is close to Islah and has become the backbone of what remains of the army, based in Marib. Islah-tied militias are especially active in the still contested governorate of Taiz (as is Al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi armed group, affiliated with Islah), in which Islahis also prevail within army units.
As the power and cohesion of Yemen’s main political parties decline, the prospect for parties’ demilitarization is reduced. During the 2011-2021 decade, the GPC and Islah have transformed: they currently show looser structures and more divided leadership than ever before. Given this background, weakened political parties appear to be unable to guarantee, in the long-term, the local implementation of a ceasefire in the event of a top-down political settlement; nor have they demonstrated a willingness to renounce (or limit) the role of auxiliary armed groups on the ground, should the conflict drag on.
Outlook. The GPC and Islah: Uncertainties and Adaptability
Historically dominant in the north, the GPC will likely continue to fail to extend its presence into the south, where it remains unable to counter the stigma of its northern origins and attendants’ association with oppression and corruption. However, despite its limited appeal in the south, the GPC is growing along the western coast of Taiz, where Tareq Saleh’s armed wing retains significant military power (albeit completely subservient to the Coalition’s commands). For the time being, the GPC will continue to draw on the relationships established by its former leader, President Saleh, and the recruitment efforts of his nephew. The divide between GPC leadership could potentially be fixed if the Coalition decides to re-build the GPC’s brand in order to confront the Houthis (for example, they could choose to further empower Tareq Saleh to continue and intensify his ongoing fight against the Houthis in Tihama).
President Hadi has been in exile since 2015 and rarely appears in public. Rumours about his health abound as speculations that he might even be under house arrest in Saudi Arabia. Representing a weakened and contested leadership, Hadi is not able to stably return to Yemen since he would be targeted by the Houthis, the STC, and others. However, in case of a succession at the Presidency, Vice President General Ali Mohsin Al-Ahmar would likely take over according to the Constitution. From a political perspective, he could rely on a strong connection with Islah, a party which currently appears to be the pivot of Yemen’s political balance.
Islah stands as the only pre-Saleh Yemeni party that has relatively maintained its ideological and political identity in the post-Saleh era. Viewing Islah exclusively as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood is reductionist: the party has worked with former foes, like the GPC, both prior and during the conflict, and seeks to politically expand throughout the whole country. Despite its success and ongoing survival, Islah has many strong opponents on the ground: the Houthis, various pro-UAE Salafi groups in southern and western areas, such as the Giants Brigades. Tribal and political groups in southern and eastern Yemen (such the Hadhramaut Inclusive Conference and the Sons of Al-Mahrah), also challenge Islah and its influence away from its central strongholds. If Islah ultimately becomes the dominant party in Yemen, it is likely to continue to change and adapt its ideology over time, as evolution and pragmatism are constant features in Yemeni politics.
 Yemen Polling Center EU-funded survey 2019, published in Yemen Polling Center, “Perceptions of the Yemeni public on living conditions and security-related issues 2019”, 2020 https://www.yemenpolling.org/perceptions-of-the-yemeni-public-on-living-conditions-and-security-related-issues-2019/.
 Final Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen 2021, S/2021/79, p. 18.
 On security hybridization in Yemen, see Maged Sultan, Mareike Transfeld and Kamal Muqbil, “Formalizing the Informal. State and Non-State Security Providers in Government-Controlled Taiz City”, Yemen Polling Center, Policy Report, 22 July 2019 https://www.yemenpolling.org/formalizing_the_informal/; Adam Baron and Raiman Al-Hamdani, “The “Proxy-War” Prism on Yemen. View From the City of Taiz”, New America, December 2019 https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/the-proxy-war-prism-on-yemen/; Eleonora Ardemagni, “Patchwork Security: The New Face of Yemen’s Hybridity”, in “Hybridizing Security: Armies and Militias in Fractured Arab States” ISPI-Carnegie Middle East Center Dossier (co-edited with Yezid Sayigh), 30 October 2018 https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/patchwork-security-new-face-yemens-hybridity-21523;