The Peculiar Power of Libyan Flags

The other day I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine, 99 Percent Invisible, which covers the history of designed objects. One aspect of design that the podcast is obsessed with is that of flags. As I listened to one flag-centric episode, it was mentioned how people generally never put much thought into the design of a flag, but at the same time tend to have an emotional reaction to the sight of a flag; whether proud, angry, wary, whatever.

This got me thinking about the Libyan flag, and the many emotional reactions I’ve seen over the years. It’s remarkable the strange journey this otherwise innocuous piece of cloth has been through. Like everything else in our country, the Libyan flag (or flags, rather) has a history of grandeur, controversy and violence.

Flag of Barga, next to a picture of King Idris, and the Benghazi municipal hall plaza (Seen on a bulletin board in Benghazi University, 2013)

Flag of Barga, next to a picture of King Idris, and the Benghazi municipal hall plaza
(Seen on a bulletin board in Benghazi University, 2013)

Let’s wind the clock back to the mid-19th century. It’s the era of the Ottoman empire, and a dark green flag with three crescent moons flies in Tripoli, the flag of the Tripolitiania Wilaya. This is one of the oldest Libyan flags known, but it represents an occupation rather than a proper identity.

Over in Cyrenaica, the air is filled with dust from the construction site of the Benghazi municipal building, as the city turns into another key point for the Ottoman Empire. This building will be decked with a number of different flags over its lifetime. One such flag is what we know today as the flag of Barga; black cloth with a white crescent and star in the middle, which was raised after Cyrenaica broke away from Italian rule. A similar red flag was used in the French-controlled Fezzan around the same time, while a light blue flag, a green palm tree and a white star designated the Tripolitianian Republic. Before these three regions adopted their individual flags, a variant of the Italian flag dominated in Tripolitiania and Cyrenaica.

Tripolitanian Republic (top) and Fezzan-Ghadames Military Territory

Tripolitanian Republic (top) and Fezzan-Ghadames Military Territory (Source)

Now, why those colours and symbols, you wonder? I actually have the same question, although one can assume that not much thought was put into the design the flags during that turbulent time. Of the three, the Tripolitianian flag, while being the most garish, also seems to have the most symbolism. A green palm tree, common in Libya, and which acts as a frame of our ocean views, and a light blue background, a colour you see often while strolling in Tripoli, whether sky or sea.

I did some digging, but I couldn’t seem to find any resources that could shed light on the meanings behind the flags. If you ask around, people will often give you romantic answers about martyrs and religion and things like that, although who knows, that could be the reasoning behind the designs.

But anyways, I digress. When Libyan independence was declared by King Idris in 1951, the first Libyan flag was born. According to this Wikipedia page, the flag of Barga (the province formally presided by King Idris) was used, with red added to symbolize blood and green to symbolize prosperity. This design was the work of Omar Faiek Shennib, a key figure during the Senussi monarchy. Some have also remarked that the design of the flag is a mix of the three provincial flags (red for Fezzan and green for Tripoli, on a Barga backdrop). This may or may not have been intentional, but all good design manages to accrue multiple meanings over time. A reading of the ’51 Libyan constitution will highlight the strict guidelines for the flag’s exact design (I’m looking at you, people who unforgivably stretch it out and butcher it in Photoshop for your designs).

From 'Good Flag, Bad Flag', compiled by Ted Kaye

From ‘Good Flag, Bad Flag’, compiled by Ted Kaye

But this flag was only fated to fly for 18 years before the Fateh revolution/coup of 1969. Gadhafi experimented with pan-Arab flags before finally settling on a national flag; the infamous green. The first, and to date only, national flag that is a single colour in the history of vexillology. One could view this as a completely selfish move (deprive the nation of a strong symbol) or as a complete lack of design initiative. However, I think it was part of Gadhafi’s branding strategy; a green flag to go with the Green Book and the Principles of the Green Revolution. It is a personal flag that represents the Gadhafi ideology rather than a proper national symbol. Libya was Gadhafi and Gadhafi was Libya; that was the meaning behind the flag.

So it’s understandable that when, during the 2011 uprising, one of the first symbols to be burned was the green flag, along with the revolutionary ‘mathabat’ and, during a bonfire blaze that I’ll never forget, copies of the Green Book. And what became the symbol of the revolution? That’s right, the tri-coloured Kingdom of Libya flag, later to be known affectionately by Libyans as Bou-Najma-wa-Hilal.

But this move was not without criticism from supporters of the revolution. Even while young men were being killed in front of Benghazi’s largest military base, some Libyans took to social media to convince others not to change their profile picture to the tri-coloured flag, and not to rally under it. They didn’t want the association with the monarchy, a system they feared would replace Gadhafi because of the re-emergence of the flag. Instead, they asked people to use a picture of Omar Mukhtar, a politically-safe symbol that all Libyans could agree on.

But whether it actually was the association with the monarchy, or maybe because the colours were so bold and defiant, the tri-coloured stuck, and eventually made an official come-back as the Libyan flag. Buried for 42 years, and yet against all odds, it came back. Talk about the power of symbols, huh?

A sea of flags in front of Benghazi's courthouse rally, April 2011

A sea of flags in front of Benghazi’s courthouse rally, April 2011

I didn’t grow up in a very Libya-centric household, so the flag was definitely new to me. I think it was new to most Libyans as well, thanks to Gadhafi’s determination in completely burying and eliminating any old symbols. And even if you didn’t want a monarchy, it still represented a better, more honourable time for Libya.

Logos from the first ministries post-2011. I know we were in transition in all, but jeez, hire a graphic designer

Logos from the first ministries post-2011. (I know we were in transition in all, but jeez, hire a graphic designer)

And since symbolism is scarce in a country that acted as company name for a self-obsessed megalomaniac for 42 years, we totally abused it. To say that it was everywhere is not an exaggeration. Everyone owned at least a handful of flags, volunteers were painting every available public surface red, black and green, and the logos of government institutes and civil society organizations alike had some variant of the flag design. Now, while the colours may look nice on a flag, they were not very pleasing to see on, say, historic monuments. We reached a red, black and green saturation point (no pun intended), and with the development of Libyan graphic skills, we’re slowly moving away from (over)using the revolutionary colours.

But the tri-coloured flag of the Kingdom wasn’t the only one to appear in public plazas and protests. In Western Libya, another flag that was new to us began to wave in the wind; the Amazigh flag. In cheery yellow, green and blue stripes, with a bold red Tinfagh letter yaz in the middle, the Amazigh flag represents not a nation, but a people, and in Libya’s case, a minority oppressed by Gadhafi. The unfurling of this flag was, in its own way, another stance of defiance against the regime. (You can read about the design here, and it’s definitely rich in literal symbolism.)

But not everyone cares for this symbolism. Many Libyans don’t like seeing the flag (to put it politely), because of its perceived exclusionary nature; i.e. you’re not part of our race. It also represents a collective Amazigh identity that transcends borders, which makes some newly nationalistic Libyans a little uncomfortable.

A homemade Barga flag at a pro-federalism rally, Benghazi 2012

A homemade Barga flag at a pro-federalism rally, Benghazi 2012

Flag revival seems to have been the theme of the new Libya. Bring out your old symbols, brush off the dirt, and pick off where you stopped 42 years ago. Remember the black flag of Barga? When the federalist movement began to gain steam in 2012, they also needed a symbol. And what better symbol than the flag of the political province that they’re trying to revive? Suddenly black Barga flags began to appear more often, as calls for federalism and a more unified Barga identity began to strengthen.

This, too, was met with criticism, although of a much more furious nature. Detractors of federalism accused the movement of trying to divide the country. Suddenly the flag went from being a historic symbol to one of exclusion; like with the Amazigh flag, the black flag of Barga represents a subset of Libyans with their own distinct identity , history and demands.

Being the pro-federalist that I am, I promptly changed my profile picture to the Barga flag back in 2012, until the federalist movement began to move away from rights for Eastern Libya towards a more hostile, tribal-based ideology. I still like the flag, but unfortunately it has become too immersed in negative connotations today, and having a Barga flag profile picture may be seen as being associated with those connotations, the down side to flag symbolism.

And speaking of negative flag symbolism, the Gadhafi flag didn’t exactly go the way of the tri-coloured in 1969. Many people and cities who oppose the revolution still hang the Gadhafi green on their buildings, in defiance of an uprising that doesn’t represent them. Many groups in the armed conflict in Libya today use “evidence” of green flags among other armed groups as proof of being pro-Gadhafi and, in effect, fair game to attack. One group accused of charging in with green flags has been the Libyan army in Benghazi, who, in response, have increased the number of tri-coloured flags around their checkpoints and on their cars. Wars of symbolism can be fought just as feverishly as wars of guns and missiles, apparently.

During a workshop I attended to analyze draft of the new Libyan constitution, the article that mentions the flag came up. Now, you’d think, with crucial state-building and policy-making articles in the constitution, we wouldn’t give much time to an article about flag design. But no, we spent a good half hour heatedly debating whether or not the tri-coloured should be the Libyan flag.

Article 4, Ch.1 of the new constitution draft

Article 4, Ch.1 of the new constitution draft

Some said that it was a no-brainer, half the country’s already covered in the colours now anyways. But some said that, no, the flag doesn’t represent everyone. Those whose children died under the banner of the green would never vote yes for a constitution that enshrined the flag their children died fighting against. I spoke to a CDA member who told me that even among the Assembly, there were members who were against the tri-colour.

But surely we can’t bring back the Gadhafi green? The people whose children died fighting this flag wouldn’t agree either. So what’s the solution? One person in the workshop proposed creating a new flag, along with a new anthem, that would help to unite all Libyans under (literally) one banner.

I’m personally undecided on this issue, because on the one hand, while the tri-coloured represents the first Libya to me, I can’t deny that the flag has become heavy with other symbolism, much like the Barga flag. As the green became the brand of Gadhafi, the red-black-and-green has become the brand of February 17th, a revolution-turned-ideology that many Libyans no longer want to be part of, and that many Libyans do not feel they are a part of to begin with.

ISIS flag in the Benghazi Thuwar Shura Council HQ in Guwarsha, Oct 2014

ISIS flag in the Benghazi Thuwar Shura Council HQ in Guwarsha, Oct 2014 (Yes, the picture is from far away, but that’s as close as I ever want to get to those guys)

There’s one last flag I haven’t mention that has also adorned lamp posts and buildings in the new Libya; the infamous Alqaeda standard and the mortifying ISIS black banner. The former appeared as early as 2011, while the latter took its place in the subsequent years. Unlike the other flags, this has been met not with anger so much as cold fear. As Libyans continue their symbolic fighting over green, red-black-and-green, or an entirely new set of colours, this flag of death threatens to cover its inky blackness over all of Libya.


Jk, I wouldn’t want to end the post on such a dark note (pun totally intended this time).

At the end of the day, they’re just pieces of cloth sown together. They’re not much different than the pyjama shirt I’m wearing. And yet, we manage to saturate them with so much meaning, so many hopes and aspirations, and sadly, so much of our fellow countrymen’s blood, that they take on a life of their own. It is really wise to give so much power to such a symbolically malleable icon? Before you answer that, ask yourself if it’s okay to arrest a man for defacing that icon, or if you would break a friendship over it? Yes, the flag you hold is an extension of your beliefs, but do you want your beliefs weaved into something whose meaning can so easily change? There is always the fear that you begin to soak the many meanings of the flag, to change who you are, so that you feel justified in holding it, and thus allowing us to become controlled by our symbols.

Benghazi Lives, via Anas Benguzi

Benghazi Lives, via Anas Benguzi

A graphic designer friend of mine who, frustrated by the Gadhafi era, the 2011 revolution, regional sensitivities and the complete abandonment of Benghazi by the rest of the country, took matters into his own hands and designed the “Flag of Benghazi”. The aqua-green “ocean” represents the huthoor, people from West Libyan origin, while the reddish-brown “land” represents the people from bedu, or East Libyan, origin. These are the people who, in a country torn by East vs. West animosity, have managed to create a city for themselves to live together. The lighthouse sits on a peaceful white background, with the words “Benghazi Lives” emblazoned underneath. Unlike the politically or regionally-charged Libyan flags, this one captures the spirit of the city; its people. He only designed it as a response to the current situation, but if it ever gets proposed as an official city flag, I’m sure that it too will meet with controversy. In any case, it’s the only flag, in this long historical mess of flags, that I currently feel represents me.

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12 thoughts on “The Peculiar Power of Libyan Flags

  1. Thank you for the insights into the history(ies) and their narratives of the Libyan flag! What would your flag of the future Libya look like?

  2. You have an amazingly keen insight into the history of flags and of Libya. This is the first time I have read your work and am pleased to find it and your perspective. You are proud of your country and yet frustrated – come to think of it, most Americans feel that way, too. I know I do. Thank you for your honesty. I will be coming back for more.

  3. Whatever happened to Libya is a source of pain to me. you may ask why_ because we Africans refused to make our stand known to the world and that is why they didn’t even give us the pleasure of saying what our soil should be. It is quite unfortunate that we refused to stand with Libya in their most difficult times. and since then Libya have knew no peace. that is a real lesson for us Africans to always stand side by side with our African brothers in pain and joy. I just pray for the government of National Unity to make Libya as peaceful
    as it was before.

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