The Atlantic

'Whoever Controls Benghazi Controls Libya'

A revolutionary city rises in the shadow of strongman Khalifa Haftar.
Source: Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

BENGHAZI, Libya — We fight terrorism for the sake of the world, reads the billboard overlooking one of this strife-torn city’s upscale streets. It also bears the visage of a mustachioed, uniformed man—Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s most powerful and polarizing figure. Coming from him, the billboard’s message is a most striking assertion.

When I went to Libya just over three years ago, then-General Haftar gave me a variation of this same line. “Libya will be the graveyard of international terrorism,” he predicted. Those were the early days of Operation Dignity, Haftar’s military campaign to rid Benghazi of Islamist and jihadist militias, who’d ensconced themselves in the city since the 2011 revolution. He’d promised the operation would be over in weeks. This May, the war in Benghazi passed its 36th month—longer than the uprising that unseated dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The conflict has killed and displaced thousands, and caused devastation on a scale not seen in the country since the Second World War.

Today, Haftar can claim some success. His forces have decimated the Islamists, pushing them back to just a few seaside blocks on Benghazi’s fringes. Life is returning to the city. But along the way, his operation has unleashed new, destabilizing forces, the greatest of which have been a resurgent authoritarianism and the political rise of Haftar himself, in defiance of the UN-backed government in Tripoli. It is an ascendancy abetted by support from an Emirati-Egyptian axis and

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