Leaders in the Arab Spring era: Where are they now?

In the wake of Saleh’s death, we look at the fate of Arab leaders affected by Arab Spring protests.

Leaders in the Arab Spring era
Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Muammar Gaddafi [Reuters, Getty Images]

The killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthi rebels on Monday marks the end of another Arab leader deposed by the Arab Spring protests.

Saleh’s death came after he announced the end of his cooperation with the Houthis on Saturday, in a move orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates, one of the key forces in the Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthis.


The former president had ruled North Yemen since 1978 before North and South Yemen merged in 1990. Saleh was then sworn in as president of a united Yemen. He remained president until 2012 when he formally ceded power to AbdRabbu Mansour Hadi, the Saudi-backed president currently fighting the Houthis.

Saleh’s resignation followed the Yemeni revolution, which was part of the broader Arab Spring that took hold of the region in early 2011.

The uprisings also deposed, came close to deposing, or ended the lives of, the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya. Here is a guide to the current status of the leaders of those countries. 

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia – living in Saudi Arabia

The Arab Spring started in December 2010 with protests against the president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ben Ali had been in power since a coup d’etat in 1987. Rising inflation, unemployment, state oppression and other issues are considered to be contributing factors to the uprising in 2010.


The moment that led to the Arab Spring? Mohammed Bouazizi, the sole provider for his extended family of eight, lit himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid, 300 kilometres south of Tunis. He was protesting against poverty.

Ben Ali resigned three weeks after protests started and fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. He and his wife Leila were tried in absentia on charges of corruption, theft and unlawful possession of cash and jewellery. They were found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison in June 2011.

Tunisia asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali and his wife. The Saudis ignored the request.

Ben Ali currently lives in Saudi Arabia.

Hosni Mubarak of Egypt – sick at home at 89 years old

The protests that began in Tunisia spread to Egypt. On January 25, 2011, the country erupted in protest against the government of Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak was president from October 1981 to February 2011, when he resigned following weeks of massive protests and a military crackdown that killed more than 800 unarmed protesters.

Mubarak was tried on multiple charges after his resignation. He was found guilty of damaging the national economy on May 28, 2011, and fined roughly $33.6m.


Then, the former president was found guilty of not preventing Egyptian security forces from killing unarmed protesters. Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison in January 2012.

The sentence was overturned in January 2013, and a retrial was ordered. While awaiting retrial, Mubarak and two of his sons were convicted of embezzlement. He was ordered to serve three years in prison.

On March 2, 2017, Egypt’s top appeals court acquitted Mubarak of all charges related to the deaths of protesters during the revolution.

Mubarak, 89, remains in Egypt and is reportedly unwell.

Bashar al-Assad of Syria – still president after years of war

Syria’s civil uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad, similar to those of Tunisia and Egypt, began in March 2011. Al-Assad has been president of Syria since the death of his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad in 2000.

The uprising quickly turned violent as al-Assad deployed the military to stop protests. He appeared close to losing the war by 2015, after armed groups from different ideological backgrounds had wrested control of the majority of the country from his forces.


Russia joined the civil war on the side of al-Assad in September 2015. Since then, the combined forces of al-Assad, Iran-linked groups, Hezbollah and Russia have routed opposition to the Syrian president in most of the country.

Al-Assad remains in Damascus after years of civil war that killed over 400,000 and displaced over 10 million, both internally and outside Syria.

It appears the Syrian president will remain in power, though Syria’s political future is yet to be decided.

Muammar Gaddafi of Libya – killed by rebels

In addition to Yemen’s Saleh, the only other leader deposed by the Arab Spring protests to be killed was Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi was Libya’s leader for 42 years before being killed by National Transitional Council fighters in his hometown of Sirte.

Libya’s unrest began in February 2011 with protests against Gaddafi in the eastern city of Benghazi. Gaddafi responded by using military force.

Protests swelled to armed conflict with NATO forces, including French warplanes and US drones, intervening.


Libya has sunk deeper into conflict since Gaddafi’s death, with an all-out civil war beginning in 2014. There are competing governments, one in Tripoli and another in the east. There are also competing armed forces, and violent organisations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) control portions of the country.

Recently, slave auctions in Libya have drawn international attention and condemnation.