What’s in a flag?

Protesters have adopted flag used after Libya won independence from Italy as symbol of their revolt.

Libya Derna protests
The red band on the flag refers to the blood of those killed during the Libyan fight for independence from Italy [AFP]

Anti-government protesters in cities across Libya have been hoisting national flags as a sign of their revolt against Muammar Gaddafi, the man who has led the country for 41 years.

Abroad, where diplomats in several embassies have also renounced Gaddafi’s leadership, the flag is also being used as a sign to show where loyalties lie.

The flag being raised, however, is not the current national flag, but one from over 40 years ago, when Libya was still ruled by a constitutional monarchy under the el-Senussi family.

It depicts three bands of green, black and red, with a white crescent and star in the centre, and was the banner under which the Kingdom of Libya won its independence from Italy on December 24, 1951.

The flag was used until 1969, when it was replaced by the pan-Arab red-white-and-black tricolour.

The red band on the 1951 flag symbolises the blood of those killed during the struggle for independence from Italy, and the green band symbolises prosperity.

The central black band appears to be a reference from the el-Senussi flag, under which King Idris I gathered Libyans together during the fight for independence.

The crescent and star are traditional symbols of Islam, the religion of most Libyans. A variation of the flag that has been used by anti-government protesters has vertical bands, and no star and crescent.

‘Stolen by Gaddafi’

Libya’s current flag is a monochromatic green rectangle, and is the only national flag currently in use that does not feature some form of icon, symbol or design.

It is strongly associated with Gaddafi’s rule, and has been in use since 1977, when the country was declared the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Youcef Bouandel, an Algerian professor of international affairs at Qatar University, explained the significance of the protesters’ choice of flag.

“This flag is the flag of Libya when it achieved its independence from the Italians … and I think that people are saying that Libya is going to achieve its independence that was stolen by Gaddafi,” he said.

Bouandel said the choice of flag did not indicate a particular predilection towards returning to a monarchical structure – as the original flag was used by the country when it was ruled by the el-Senussi family – rather it was a reaction against Gaddafi, and an expression of a desire for independence.

Protesters shows areas they claim are controlled by anti-government forces under the 1951-69 flag

“[It is] to tell him that there was a Libya before Gaddafi came to power,” said Bouandel. 

“He seemed to imply in his speech that he was Libya, that he made Libya … [but they wish to say] there was a Libya that fought for its independence and that was the flag of Libya before you took power in what you called a revolution.”

Analysts say that while there is the possibility of the Libyan monarchy coming back to some form of power if Gaddafi were overthrown, it remains unclear at this point how strong a possibility that is.

Awad Elfeituri, from the Libyan Information Centre, a Doha-based organisation that has been using contacts in the country to get information regarding the revolt out to the wider world, spoke to Al Jazeera about the significance of the flag.

He said that it was unlikely that protesters had chosen the flag with its ties to the monarchy in mind, as most protesters are younger than 30 years old – Gaddafi seized power in a coup d’etat 41 years ago.

Elfeituri said the choice of the older flag as a symbol of the revolution came from a sense of “nostalgia”, of a longing for the “good old days”, where, in particular, law and order were maintained.

He said the protesters “do not want anything to do with Gaddafi”, and the green flag is closely associated with the Libyan leader.

Those sentiments to be borne out by protesters against Gaddafi’s rule.

“It represents a free Libya [because] that’s how it was before he [Gaddafi] came along. We just want someone that will listen to us,” said Amina, a 22-year-old student in London at a protest in that city.

Muftah Abdelsamad, a 57-year-old Libyan living in exile in Britain for 35 years, told Al Jazeera: “This flag means everything. It’s our independence flag from the occupation of the Italian forces, and … I’m proud to wear it around.”

While some protesters expressed admiration of the monarchy with which the flag is associated, others asserted that the meaning for them was primarily one of independence and revolution.

Amjad Tahaa, a 19-year-old from Birmingham in the United Kingdom said the flag “represents the Libyan revolution and what the people want, regardless of the previous meaning”.

Divisions and unity

In a speech televised on national television on February 21, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi’s son, warned: “Libya is not like Egypt [referring to the revolution in that country], it is tribes and clans. It is not a society with parties. Everyone knows their duties and this may cause civil wars.”

The deep tribal divisions do continue to predict loyalties in Libya, and during recent unrest several tribes have turned against Gaddafi [notably the Warfala tribe, the country’s largest].

The 1951-69 flag, however, is a symbol of tribal unity, as all of the country’s clans agreed to be ruled under the el-Senussi family [and an elected parliament], said Bouandel.

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The flag then, appears to symbolise both independence and unity.

Interestingly, the plain green flag that Gaddafi made the national pennant in 1977 is also supposed to symbolise unity, Bouandel and Elfeituri said.

The colour green, which is closely associated with Gaddafi’s government in Libya, is in the Arab world considered a colour of peace, equality and the colour of heaven, Bouandel added.

Gaddafi has also displayed a particular devotion to the colour.

His manifesto, which he quotes often, is called the Green Book and features a green cover, and during recent violence he urged his supporters to wear green armbands as a sign of where their loyalties lay.

During his address to the nation on February 22, he urged his supporters to don their green armbands and “cleanse” Libya of anti-government protesters.

ElFeituri says the colour is somewhat of an obsession with Gaddafi. In the city of Benghazi, which in recent days has become a stronghold for protesters, he had earlier reportedly “forced people to paint their walls and doors green”.

The colour appears to have a deeper importance to Gaddafi than simply being a means of identification.

Bouandel narrated an anecdote to Al Jazeera, describing a function at the University of Benghazi some years ago when Gaddafi wanted to take notes of what speakers were saying.

Students present at the university offered Gaddafi a pen that wrote in red ink. He was offended by the offer, Bouandel said, asking “Since when do I use that?”

Gaddafi then demanded that a green pen be provided for him to write with.

Additional reporting contributed by Al Jazeera’s Jacqueline Head in London

You can follow Asad Hashim on Twitter at @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera