From second left: Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak pictured in 2010.

Arab spring autocrats: the dead, the ousted and those who remain

What became of the strongmen whose rule sparked protest across the region

At the end of 2010, dictators, kings and military rulers across the Arab world had little idea their oppressive governments were about to reach a critical point.

During the months and years that followed, the region was shaken by a once-in-a-generation movement to overthrow the strongmen of the Middle East and north Africa.

The Guardian looks back at what happened to some of the most prominent autocrats of the Arab spring, from the Syrian leader who destroyed his own country to remain in power, to the Gulf monarch who managed to hold on to dynastic rule, to the Libyan general captured and tortured by rebels.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
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Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Ousted: President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali

Tunisia’s former president, who ruled for 23 years, was one of the first autocrats to be overthrown. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled with his family to Saudi Arabia in January 2011 after a month of anti-government protests in the north African country that triggered the Arab spring. Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for his role in the deaths of demonstrators.

After years of treatment for prostate cancer, Ben Ali died last year, aged 83, leaving behind a legacy of tantalising but unfulfilled democratic promises, state-gutting corruption and often-bloody repression.

President Hosni Mubarak.
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Hosni Mubarak.

Ousted: President Hosni Mubarak

Having ruled Egypt for three decades, Hosni Mubarak was the second Arab leader to be toppled by the 2011 protests. He resigned on 11 February that year after mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and across the country.

Mubarak, who took power in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, led the most populous country in the Middle East with a punishing grip, employing deep state surveillance and cronyism, usually with western backing.

After a trial that gripped the nation, Mubarak was jailed for life in 2012 for conspiring to murder protesters, but was later acquitted. The former air force commander died in February 2020. However, his legacy of military dominance continues – the president and former general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, seized power in a 2013 military coup that ousted the country’s only democratically elected government.

Ali Abdullah Saleh
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Ali Abdullah Saleh

Ousted (and later killed): President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Despite a nationwide popular uprising, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president in power since 1980, managed to hold on for several months in 2011. He repeatedly claimed he would leave, while brokering deals with the country’s tiny elite and foreign governments.

After nine months of mass protests and a bomb attack on his palace that left him severely burned and bed-ridden, Saleh agreed to transfer his powers to the vice-president in return for immunity from prosecution.

In the following years, he fought a devastating civil war before being killed by Houthi rebels – a faction of former enemies who became allies – after they said he turned on them.

Muammar Gaddafi
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Muammar Gaddafi

Killed: Muammar Gaddafi

Libya’s longtime strongman and ruler of 42 years, Muammar Gaddafi, was the first leader to be killed after the upheaval of the Arab spring. Responding to a pro-democracy uprising with crushing lethality, the mercurial colonel who gained world notoriety for his narcissism plunged his country into a bloody eight-month civil war.

Calling his critics “rats”, Gaddafi sent forces to attack the eastern city of Benghazi, which had revolted. In response, Nato imposed a no-fly zone over the country, coordinating with rebel forces. On 20 October 2011, Gaddafi, still fighting an obviously lost war in his ancestral home of Sirte, was captured and killed. He was 69.

Bashar al-Assad
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Bashar al-Assad.

Survived: President Bashar al-Assad

Backed by Syria’s infamously brutal secret police, Bashar al-Assad was believed in early 2011 to have been an autocrat able to suppress Arab spring-inspired public dissent before it gathered pace.

However, Assad underestimated his own people, and although they took longer to emerge, small peaceful protests soon spread. In response, the eye doctor turned dictator launched a bloody crackdown, sparking a civil war that continues today.

With his forces bombing hospitals and bakeries, as well as mounting chemical weapon attacks, the Syrian leader has managed to hold on to his title with the significant military and financial help of his allies in Moscow and Tehran. But his country is now in ruins.

Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
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Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Survived: King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa

Of all the Gulf monarchies, the rulers of Bahrain appeared most in danger of being deposed by the Arab spring uprisings.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa responded to pro-democracy protests in the small state with a crackdown that has continued to stifle dissent throughout the past decade. His government dismissed much of the criticism as meddling by the regional powerhouse Iran and has managed to remain in power with support from Saudi Arabia.