By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

For decades, residents of the oil-rich eastern province of Libya -- Barqah in Arabic and Cyrenaica in English -- were marginalized in favor of the western half of the country.

So with Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi gone and a constitution-drafting process slated for later this year, a contingent of Eastern leaders last week seized the initiative to make a bid for autonomy as the “Barqah Transitional Council.”

The result was a firestorm of criticism from commentators across the region, many of them concerned about further division and violence in the Middle East. The push from Barqah -- which includes much of Libya's oil wealth and the city of Benghazi, the headquarters of the revolt that toppled Qaddafi -- also triggered a sometimes-emotional debate among Libyans, who lined up for and against the move.

All seemed to agree on just one point: that how each side in the debate responds to Barqah's autonomy bid over the coming months will play a major role in determining Libya's future.

“What happened was an attempt to impose federalism as a fait accompli,” wrote columnist Ismail al-Koraytli in the Libyan daily Al-Youm. “The political shape of the state should be determined in the context of constitutional discussions and this would require us to wait until the formation of the constitutional committee, which should be conducted following the elections.” These are currently set for June.

Koraytli saw several groups behind the announcement, which he said was putting the country’s future in grave danger. These included former regime loyalists, “opportunists” bent on seizing the East’s vast oil reserves, and some Libyans who rightfully “reject marginalization and centralization.”

To preempt this form of freelance federalism, which Koraytli suggested would create a slippery slope toward the country's outright division, he implored Libyans to take to the streets in a massive show of support for the legitimate claims made by Easterners.

“What is required of the capital, Tripoli, more than any other region or city, is to stage large demonstrations demanding the annulment of centralization, the activation of local administrations and the application of local authority,” Koraytli wrote.

Columnist Mohammad Abu Derbala took a harder line in an article on the Libyan website New Quryna. Writing just before the autonomy announcement, he warned that unilateral calls for federalism “would marginalize citizens and public opinion in Libya in an even worse way than the marginalization that was endured by citizens under the disbanded regime.”

Eastern leaders poised to go down this road knew better, according to Derbala. He added that all Libyans want to put an end to centralization, “but does the solution reside in dividing the country? And if we divide the country and the population in the Eastern city of Benghazi solves the centralization problem, what about our brothers in the East from other cities? How will we solve their centralization problem? Will they also demand secession?”

Writing in the Libyan daily Al-Watan, columnist As-Sadek al-Obeidi responded to these concerns. He said the autonomy declaration represented a vital step forward that had been badly misinterpreted by its opponents. The people of the East are “calling on you to accept a federal administrative system, which is not suggested as a form of division or an alternative to a unified country,” Obeidi said, stressing the Barqah declaration’s support for “a unified Libyan state.”

In fact, he added, the autonomy push harks back to provincial demarcations that existed in the early days of Libya's King Idris (who ruled from 1951 to 1969), which were largely erased by the time Qaddafi consolidated power in the 1970s.

“Obnoxious centralization,” Obeidi concluded, must be stamped out across all of Libya, including in the West, if a major conflict down the road is to be avoided. “So, for God’s sake, why are you casting accusations of betrayal, secession and division?” he asked.

Outside Libya, Barqah’s bid for autonomy was widely seen as dangerous in a region wracked by turmoil and at risk of disintegration. In one particularly strident article, under the headline “Two transitional councils produce war,” columnist Zuhayr Majid wrote in the Omani daily Al-Watan that the hands of outsiders -- especially Western powers interested in gaining more control over Libya’s oil and finding potential allies for Israel -- were behind the recent declaration.

“When Sudan was divided and that small agent state for Israel emerged in its south, this was a model for the path of other Arab countries,” Majid wrote, in a reference to last year’s creation of the state of South Sudan. The new state quickly initiated diplomatic ties with Israel, while becoming mired in a potentially violent dispute over energy with Sudan.

Al-Quds al-Arabi’s editor-in-chief, Abdel-Beri Atwan, took a similar line, writing that a divide-and-conquer strategy long pursued by the West was being extended. “Libya now faces two choices: either to accept federalism and the division plans that are backed by foreign parties, or slide into a regional civil war, since Benghazi’s federalism might evolve into outright secession and consequently the monopolization of the oil wealth that would transform it into a Gulf Sheikhdom.”

For columnist Rajeh al-Khoury, a slide into war or some kind of foreign takeover need not be the only options for the country. He wrote in the Beirut-based An-Nahar that the situation would become dangerous only if Libya’s National Transitional Council were to follow through on the threats issued by its head, Mustafa Abdul Jalil.

In comments that he subsequently toned down, Jalil told the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Television last week that he would use “force” to block the autonomy declaration. This, wrote Khoury, will create blowback that “will definitely lead to Libya’s partitioning,” possibly even beyond any East-West division. "Misrata in the West has already replaced the local council that was appointed by Libya’s ruling interim council. In addition, pro-Qaddafi fighters have expelled the fighters of the National Transitional Council from Bani Walid, and Abdul Jalil’s council failed to do anything about that.”

Khoury went on, "Using force against the oil-rich Eastern region is actually the starting point for a great unraveling," since it would be like “casting a lit match on a land that is waiting for a spark to blow up!”

As for the Western-led plot to encourage territorial breakups, columnist Sateh Noureddine remarked sarcastically in the Beirut-based As-Safir daily, that “the announcement of federalism in Barqah stirred up all kinds of annoying nightmares that the Arabs feel every time this scary word is mentioned.” He was referring to federalism.

This, Nourredine said, ignored the fact that some Arab populations do want federalism, “considering it as a way to build stable countries and societies” without “abandoning national identity.”

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

To contact the writers of this article: noe@mideastwire.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

-0- Mar/13/2012 15:23 GMT