About 3,000 political, tribal and civil-society leaders meeting in Benghazi on Tuesday declared the eastern region of Cyrenaica, also known as Barqa, would become semiautonomous. Within a federal system, this would mean that the region would have its own local council with executive and legislative powers to manage the affairs of the region.

The move came amid serious criticism in eastern Libya of the planned allocation of seats in the National Assembly. The interim government, represented by the National Transition Council, had allotted representation according to population: 102 seats for western Libya, 60 for the eastern region, 29 for the southern region and nine for the central area.

Tripoli has now raised the alarm, with the NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil warning that the government would use force to preserve national unity.

There is a legitimate political movement in eastern Libya calling for federalism. The justification is to decentralise governance, prevent the marginalisation of eastern and southern Libya, and also to prevent a dictatorship from being reborn in Tripoli. On the opposite side, the federal proposal is condemned as a betrayal of national unity and “separatists” are accused of being supported by outside powers in the interest of partitioning the country. There is also the issue of the oil wealth that is centralised in Barqa.

Federalism is a burning topic in Libya at the moment, but the lack of political institutions, which is a legacy of the Gaddafi era, leads both sides to view the issue in black and white - proposals of federalism are already being compared to threats of war.

The scenario of partition in Libya could lead to very regrettable results, possibly even civil war among the old three provinces of Cyrenaica in the east, Fezzan in the south and Tripolitania in the west. The administrative borders of these regions have never been fully established, and would be hotly contested.

This confrontation doesn’t serve the unity of Libyans and will not benefit any of the sides involved. Instead, the confusion gives a promising opportunity to remaining Gaddafi loyalists to push the country towards renewed war (which Gaddafi threatened in his last days), and the situation could be exploited by foreign powers that see the partition of Libya as in their interests in the region. Libyans need constructive dialogue instead of confrontation to reach a national consensus and negate these threats.

The NTC is partly to blame for the deteriorating situation. When liberation was announced in October, the NTC and the government moved wholesale to Tripoli, leaving Benghazi behind completely. That left people in eastern Libya believing that the promise of a decentralised sharing of power was an empty one. After the liberation, political activity in Benghazi began to decline - decisions are made almost exclusively in Tripoli, away from the “heart” of the revolution, as eastern Libyans see it.

The NTC faced many challenges while putting together the Elections Law 2012, and made major amendments trying to make everyone happy. Some of these changes included dropping a gender-related quota, allowing citizens with dual nationality to run for the National Assembly and adjusting the allocation of seats to independents and party-list candidates.

But the NTC has failed in crucial areas. There is no clear law governing how political parties should operate and interact. And the allocation of National Assembly seats purely by population distribution, ignoring regional representation, contradicts the Council’s own promises.

Tribal leaders in Barqa will have a significant role to play in this situation. The NTC will need to reconsider the allocation of seats to win support and trust from tribal leaders in the area. There have already been reports of meetings between leaders from the Warfalla tribe in western Libya and leaders from eastern Libya, with discussions revolving around federalism and the allocation of seats.

The NTC has to take practical steps to calm the tribal leaders and others in eastern Libya to prevent further fracture in very difficult and turbulent times. A national consensus is the only means by which Libyans can realise their aspirations for democracy.

The government has already made some progress, recently announcing plans to decentralise decision-making and give more power to local councils. The second step should be an immediate reconsideration of the allocation of seats in the National Assembly to rebuild trust between Libyans outside of the western region and the interim authorities.

There is also dismay in the south and east that armed militias still control most of Tripoli. These militias are using their positions to blackmail the NTC for favourable deals. People in Tripoli need to take matters into their own hands to push the militias out of the capital by coordinating with the central government and demonstrating against their influence.

Patriots need to show their unity and their support for each other. The people of Tripoli and surrounding areas should show support for the legitimate demands of the people in the east and south and vice versa. Only then will Libyans ensure the unity of their country and avoid a catastrophic scenario in place of the desired transition to democracy.

Mohamed Eljarh is an academic and cofounder of the Libyan Academy for Creativity and Innovation. He is from the city of Tobruk in western Libya.

 –The National