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Libya: When a strongman looks weak

Members of the Libyan Special Forces ride past a billboard bearing Haftar's image in Benghazi. Photo: Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

Khalifa Haftar, the charismatic general-turned-warlord who became a key power broker after the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, is back in his stronghold in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi following a health scare that sparked rumors he was dead. The question is, for how long?

Why it matters: If the 75-year-old general’s grip slips, the resulting power vacuum could give ISIS room to grow, and refugee flows would become harder to manage. That would be a problem, for Italy especially. And if militia groups that have been loyal to Haftar launch a chaotic grab for the region’s crude supply, the price of oil could rise further. That would hit you in your wallet.

The background

  • Libya has effectively been two countries since 2015, with different factions vying for control after the civil war that followed Gaddafi’s downfall.
  • Haftar’s Libyan National Army gained control and legitimacy in eastern Libya by taking ground ceded to Islamist insurgents and commanding authority over lucrative oil fields.
  • An eastern government backed by Haftar continues to compete with a rival UN-recognized government in Tripoli, 800 miles to the west. It’s an uneasy duel for control of a country that is still riddled with ISIS fighters.

The first rule of being a strong man who rules over a hive of squabbling, heavily-armed antagonists is don’t ever let them think you’re a goner. That’s particularly true for Haftar, a soldier of fortune who helped bring Gaddafi to power in a 1969 coup only to spend years plotting the Libyan dictator’s ouster from exile in suburban Virginia after falling out of his good graces.

For such a larger-than-life figure, the mere appearance of weakness can be a cue for potential rivals. Haftar, who told the crowd gathered to meet him in Benghazi that he “should be addressing you standing up but I am obliged to do so sitting down,” seems keenly aware of this.

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