Five Strongmen, and the Fate of the Arab Spring

Libya has since descended into a bubbling state of semi-anarchy and is a haven for human smugglers who exploit refugees and migrants seeking boat passage to Europe.


Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia arrived with his wife, Leila, right, at campaign rally outside Tunis in 2009, when he was still president. He was toppled two years later, the first of the autocrats ousted by the Arab Spring uprisings.

Hassene Dridi/Associated Press

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia

Mr. Ben Ali, 81, the first of the Arab autocrats to be ousted, enjoyed what critics called an obscenely opulent life. It made for a stark contrast with the struggles of ordinary Tunisians, whose despair seemed exemplified by the fate of the fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi.

Mr. Ben Ali fled Tunisia with his family in January 2011 for Saudi Arabia, where the government has allowed them to live quietly and have rejected Tunisian requests to extradite him.


Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, at the presidential palace in Sana in 2008, three years before the Arab Spring uprisings forced him to leave office. He was killed on Monday.

Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen

Mr. Saleh, considered one of the most cunning autocrats in the Arab world, stepped down in early 2012 after three decades of leading Yemen, the Middle East’s most impoverished country. He remained a powerful political personality and later aligned himself in with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have been fighting a Saudi-led military coalition for nearly three years.

He was killed on Monday at the age of 75, in an explosion of mayhem in Sana, Yemen’s capital, after he was said to have switched sides yet again, in a betrayal of his Houthi allies, who are backed by Iran.


President Bashar al-Assad at the first session of the new Syrian Parliament in Damascus, Syria, last year.

SANA, via European Pressphoto Agency

Bashar al-Assad of Syria

Confounding predictions by Western leaders that he was next in line to fall, President Assad has remained in power through a 2011 uprising that morphed into a civil war, devastated Syria and created a staggering refugee crisis.

Assisted by allies Russia and Iran, the forces of Mr. Assad, 52, a former eye doctor, have retaken wide swaths of Syria that had been lost to a mix of insurgents and Islamist extremists. But much of his country is in ruins, with rebuilding costs estimated by the United Nations to exceed $250 billion. Negotiations to end the war remain tenuous, with no clarity on Mr. Assad’s future role.

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