A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Libya's Flag War

In the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, the national flag was clearly co-opted by the demonstrators, constantly waved to proclaim their loyalty to the homeland, thus defusing any claims by the regimes that these demonstrators were unpatriotic. The ongoing demonstrations in Bahrain, Yemen, and as far as I can tell Algeria, have also adopted the national flag as their symbol.

But something quite different is happening in Libya.The flag used from Libyan independence in 1951 until Qadhafi's revolution of 1969 (above) has been waved by many of the demonstrators, and in the last few days as Libya's diplomatic corps has jumped ship, many Libyan Embassies and consulates abroad have raised the old flag instead of the unadorned green banner of Qadhafi's Jamahiriyya (right).

This is not, presumably, nostalgia for the Sanusi monarchy overthrown in 1969, but for a flag that was distinctively Libyan. The old flag had the star and crescent in a tricolor (sometimes said to stand for Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan). The current flag looks more like a semaphore flag than a national ensign: it's the world's only national flag consisting of only one color and no other insignia.

Between 1969 and the adoption of the Jamahiriyya flag in 1977 Libya used two other flags. The first was a horizontal tricolor in the red, white and black of the old Arab revolt flag (left), which except for its dimensions was pretty much identical to the flag Yemen uses today. Given the latter fact, it isn't a good candidate for revival.

Then from 1972 until 1977, Libya joined with Egypt and Syria in the Federation of Arab Republics, which was pretty evanescent except for the three countries adopting virtually identical flags, with the Falcon of Qureish on each, and differing only in the name under the falcon. (The illustration is actually the version with Egypt's inscription, predecessor to the present Egyptian flag which replaced the Falcon of Qureish with the Eagle of Saladin.)

All three countries later changed their flags, but Qadhafi's solid green banner seems the odd one out. I can only guess why the first flag of independent Libya has become the emblem of the revolt, but I suspect it's the one unambiguously Libyan flag in the lot.

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