THE most important story in Libya this year is unfolding in a Paris hospital. Khalifa Haftar, the general who rules the east of the divided country, checked into the Val-de-Grâce military hospital earlier this month. His condition is a mystery. There are reports that he suffered a stroke and may be in a coma—or even dead. His spokesman insists he merely needed some tests and will return home in a “few days”, though he said that weeks ago. The French government is tight-lipped. But reality may now matter less than perception. General Haftar has not been seen since early April. His grip on eastern Libya is faltering and his allies are scrambling to find a successor.

It is a stunning fall for one of Libya’s most powerful and polarising figures. General Haftar (pictured above) backed the coup that in 1969 brought Muammar Qaddafi to power, but eventually ran afoul of the dictator and wound up in exile in America. He returned to Libya during the uprising that toppled Qaddafi in 2011. In early 2014, as the country descended into civil war, he set out to seize Benghazi, the country’s eastern city, and crush Islamist militias. Three years later his Libyan National Army (LNA) declared victory.

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The general claims he brought a measure of stability to the east. His men control Sidra and Ras Lanuf, the country’s biggest oil port and refinery. Production rose by over half last year, to more than 1m barrels a day, though it is still well below pre-revolution levels. But his victory was pyrrhic. Benghazi is in ruins. He rules the rubble like an authoritarian. The LNA has looted property from displaced families and tortured critics. And his growing power comes at the expense of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the capital at the western end of the country. The UN wants Libya to hold elections this year. General Haftar has already hinted that he may not accept the results.

Now it is unclear whether he will live to see them—or who will take his place. Though it styles itself an army, the LNA is really a patchwork of militias. Their leaders are already jockeying to replace the ailing general. Much will depend on his foreign backers. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s field marshal-turned-president, sees General Haftar as a kindred spirit: another military man eager to pound Islamists. The United Arab Emirates also backs him, with attack aircraft and Chinese-made drones deployed to bases in Libya’s eastern desert. But the two countries are thought to disagree on a successor.

So do Libyans, divided as they are along tribal, geographic and ethnic lines. Consider General Abdessalam al-Hassi, a leading contender for the job. He is not a member of General Haftar’s Ferjan tribe, which may cost him the support of the LNA’s (mostly Ferjan) leadership. Yet installing another member of the Ferjan (ie, someone who does not hail from the east) could cause other tribes to leave the group. Adding to the confusion are General Haftar’s two sons, Khalid and Saddam, who have been groomed as successors. But they lack battlefield experience and support.

Meanwhile, there are already signs of a power vacuum in Benghazi. On April 18th Abdel-Razaq al-Nadhouri, the general’s chief of staff, another potential successor, survived a car-bomb. Days later clashes broke out between the army and police, who are nominally on the same side. Even if he does return, General Haftar no longer appears invincible. His empire in the east may be short-lived.