For decades it was impossible to travel anywhere in Yemen without seeing the image of a black steed in full trot towards the unknown.
The image was the logo of the General People’s Congress, the political party founded in 1982 by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana’a in what was then North Yemen. The “black steed” went even further when North Yemen virtually annexed South Yemen in 1990 in a scheme that Saleh promoted as “national unification.”
But what did the back steed symbolize? When put the question to Saleh in one of our meetings in his palace in Sana’a, he seemed to hesitate. Maybe the steed symbolized the mount used by the Queen of Sheba to travel to her rendezvous with Solomon, I quipped.
In reality, however, what the black steed reflected most may have been Saleh himself who had been the “dark horse” of Yemen’s tumultuous politics since 1974.
For almost four decades Colonel Saleh, later self-promoted to general, has been the unexpected gate-crasher in successive power struggles, often bloody, in a land that is an abyss of misery and beauty. Each time, he was written off as a spent force, a yesterday’s man and, each time, he managed to bounce back to claim a place in the deadly fight over Yemen’s future.
This is what happened again this week as Saleh decided that his “patience” with his erstwhile allies, the Iran-backed Houthis, has run out and that it was time for a divorce negotiated through gunfights in an already badly wounded Sana’a.
But what is Saleh’s real political weight?
In the early part of his politico-military career he was no more than part of an entourage of the “strongman” of the moment. We first caught a glimpse of him in 1974 when Colonel Ibrahim al-Hamdi staged a coup against President Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani and formed a Military Command Council to rule North Yemen.
Hamdi became a close friend of Iran under the Shah and Iranian intelligence identified Saleh as a “dark horse” suspected of harboring “pan-Arab” sentiments.
However, when Hamdi was brutally assassinated, it was not Saleh that came to the fore but Hamdi’s alleged murderer Colonel Ahmad Hussein al-Gashmi.
Saleh remained “the dark horse” lurking in the shadows of the military leadership until 1978 when it became Ghashmi’s turn to be assassinated. A month after the assassination, Saleh “the dark horse” emerged from the shadows to assume a presidency that many thought had become a death sentence.
The proverb “never two without three” didn’t come true in Saleh’s case as he proved wrong those who though that he, too, would be assassinated like his two immediate predecessors.
When we first met Saleh, he claimed that his chief aim was to create “modern stable state institutions” in a country still dominated by medieval codes and tribal politics. By 1982, Saleh thought that he had made enough progress in that direction to launch his own political party. The General People’s Congress was born as a coalition of different and, at times, antagonistic groups, parties and clienteles whose chief common point was the acceptance of Saleh as president.
In one sense, the Congress was no different from similar structures launched in several other Arab countries, notably Egypt, Syria and Iraq all of which experienced one-party rule. However, the Congress was different from Nasser’s Arab Socialist Party or the Ba’athist outfits under Hafez al-Assad or Saddam Hussein in one important respect: It had no codified ideology. Thus, it could pose as nationalist, socialist or even liberal according to the mood of the moment and the tactical calculations of the president.
The party’s chief function was to operate as a political machine for distribution of posts and favors, and, as time went by, fruits of corruption. Last but not least, it had to ensure success in presidential and parliamentary elections. All in all, the Congress played the role assigned to it with great efficiency even after unification with South Yemen in 1990.
The civil war shook the Congress to its foundations and, if it managed to survive, was largely due to deals made between Saleh and powerful tribal chiefs in the north.
The Congress suffered from several major weaknesses from the start.
First, it never managed to attract loyalty on its own accounts and in addition to, if not actually away, from the person of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Next, Saleh’s erratic decision-making and his habit of shifting positions like a weather vane made it impossible for the Congress to develop its own political profile or appeal to larger audiences on key issues of policy.
Thirdly, the Congress remained basically regional in the sense that it did not substantially grow beyond its original base in the north.
Despite the disappearance of leftist factions in the former South Yemen, which created new space for action, the Congress failed to strike roots in the former sultanates of southern Arabia. In Hadhramaut, for example, its appeal remained limited to senior officials sent from Sana’a.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to write off the Congress altogether. Nor could one dismiss Saleh as the day-before-yesterday’s man. The Congress still represents many bureaucratic, political, business and tribal elements often tied together through clan backgrounds and old alliances. Saleh himself is no longer “the dark horse” likely to ride into center-stage.
But, as the Houthis, who have tried to eliminate him may have realized, nor is he the doormat over which they could walk into absolute power in the enclave in north Yemen. Whatever the ultimate shape and taste of the witches’ brew in Yemen, Saleh and the General People’s Congress are likely to remain among the ingredients.