Ali Abdullah Saleh, the autocratic former president of Yemen who led the country for three decades and held sway over its politics for years afterward, was confirmed to have died Monday after reports of fighting between his supporters and the Houthis, Yemeni rebels with whom he had been previously aligned in an ongoing civil war.
Saleh was one of four autocrats ousted during the Arab Spring — pro-democracy protests that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and eventually gripped much of the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike these other leaders, however, Saleh had continued to be a political force even after leaving office.
Egypt: Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak was a little-known vice president before he assumed Egypt's top office in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Despite his low profile, Mubarak soon displayed skill at deflecting political unrest at home and positioning himself as a key ally of Western powers. Mubarak ruled with an iron fist, and his regime was notorious for human rights abuses and corruption.
The Arab Spring reached Egypt in January 2011, and Mubarak was ousted from office after an 18-day revolution that centered on Cairo's Tahrir Square. Two months later, he was the first autocrat to face trial in the wake of the Arab Spring, and he was charged with complicity in protesters' deaths and the theft of state money.
Initially, Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison alongside his interior minister and six aides. However, his fortune has ebbed and flowed with post-revolution political changes in Egypt.
He was first moved from prison to a hospital because of concerns about his health. In 2014, a court cited technical flaws in his prosecution to dismiss charges related to the death of protesters. In March, Mubarak — who is now 89 — was freed from hospital detention and moved to his mansion in Heliopolis, an upscale northern suburb of Cairo. His sons are frequently seen around the city, despite being convicted of stealing millions from the state.
Libya: Moammar Gaddafi
Gaddafi was long one of the Arab world's most infamous and unpredictable figures. After seizing power in 1969, he became known as an iconoclastic pan-Arabist who supported terrorism plots against the West with Libya's oil wealth — most notoriously, the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. But later, he became a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda.
When anti-government rallies hit Libya in February 2011, Gaddafi responded with characteristic brutality. Thousands of civilians were killed. NATO intervened in response, helping turn the tide of the rebels against the regime. Gaddafi was killed Oct. 20, 2011, in murky circumstances: The interim Libyan government initially said he was killed in an exchange of gunfire, but video footage soon emerged showing a bloody and apparently unarmed Gaddafi being violently forced into a truck.
Many Western powers were dismayed by Gaddafi's violent death, as they had hoped that he could be placed on trial. His family's grip on Libya has dramatically loosened since his death, with his sons living in exile or in jail. However, with the country still engulfed in post-revolution political turmoil, a cousin, Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam, has pushed for reconciliation.
Tunisia: Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010, when a young fruit seller set himself on fire in response to harassment from police. Within weeks, public outrage had ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had led the country since 1987. Like other ousted Arab Spring autocrats, Ben Ali was a strongman who had jailed rivals and allowed corruption to run amok. However, unlike his peers, he was allowed to leave the country, fleeing with his family to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011.
Since 2011, Ben Ali has lived in Jiddah and has not played much of a role in Tunisian politics and its transition to democracy. Later that year, he and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, were sentenced in absentia to 35 years in prison for economic crimes. Though he has not returned to Tunisia to face these charges, he released a statement in 2016, in response to public hearings of Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission, acknowledging that his regime had committed “errors, abuses and violations.”
Yemen: Ali Abdullah Saleh
Saleh rose to power in what was then the country of North Yemen after the assassination of President Ahmad al-Ghashmi in 1978. In 1990, he oversaw the merger of North Yemen with the Soviet-supported South Yemen. Though he once allied Yemen with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, he later oversaw the development of significant ties with the United States and other Western powers and became an ally in the fight against al-Qaeda.
Saleh was ousted from the presidency in 2012 after a period of protracted negotiations that included an assassination attempt that seriously injured him. But he was unique among ousted Arab Spring autocrats because he was able to retain his political clout, even opening a museum in Sanaa, the capital, dedicated to his time in office.
Despite his former opposition to Yemen's Shiite Houthi rebels, Saleh was a key figure in their 2014 takeover of the country, using his cash and reputation to get powerful figures to accept their rule. However, as Yemen's civil war dragged on, there were reports that he had again reconsidered his position and reached out to Saudi Arabia, which supports embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Though the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear, reports suggested that Saleh was killed by the Houthis, and videos circulated that purportedly showed his body with what appeared to be a head wound.
“Would have been far better if [Saleh] had been tried for his crimes rather than leaving precedent of impunity,” Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth wrote on Twitter.
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