Opposition rallies to post-colonial flag


BANNER WAR:Rebels see standard as symbolising reclamation of country from Gadafy, writes MARY FITZGERALD

AMAL SHINEEB thought she would never again see the national flag her father designed for a newly independent Libya in the 1950s fly high over Benghazi.

Muammar Gadafy replaced it with the red, white and black pan-Arab tricolour after he came to power in a 1969 military coup. In 1977, Gadafy introduced Libya’s current flag, a solid green rectangle, the only national flag in use that does not feature some form of icon, symbol or design.

The sprightly septuagenarian’s eyes shine when she recalls seeing her father’s striped flag on the streets of Benghazi just days into the protests that later tipped eastern Libya into full-blown revolt against Gadafy’s dictatorship.

“I thought I was dreaming when I saw it first,” she says. “I was so happy. It makes me feel young again.”

Shineeb’s father, Omar, a leading figure in Libya’s first post-colonial government, not only designed the newly independent country’s standard but also drafted its constitution.

The flag, which comprises three horizontal bands of red, black and green, with a white star and crescent at the centre, is rich with symbolism.

“The red represents the blood spilt fighting Italian colonial rule and the black represents the darkness of Italian occupation,” says Shineeb.

“The green represents our hope for the new era after independence. The star and crescent are symbols of Islam because we are Muslims.”

The flag, apart from being seen in the thousands at opposition rallies, flutters from government buildings, businesses and private homes across rebel-held eastern Libya.

In the early days of the uprising, people flew home-made flags made from scraps of material, but now textile factories have begun mass-producing the banner. Its colours have been incorporated into clothing, hats, key rings, badges, bumper stickers and mobile phone screens.

Children in Benghazi get their faces painted in red, black and green stripes. Overseas, where diplomats in several embassies have sided with the uprising, the flag is also being used to show where loyalties lie.

When the pre-Gadafy standard was last flown, Libya was ruled by a constitutional monarchy under the el-Senussi dynasty. People in the country’s eastern flank say the rebels’ adoption of the flag does not indicate a desire to return to a monarchical structure but rather is a reaction to Gadafy.

“With this flag we are saying we are reclaiming the country Gadafy stole from the Libyan people,” says Ayesha, a Benghazi teacher.

“We love this flag,” says Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel Libyan National Council.

“This was our flag after independence and because of that it is a very powerful and important symbol for us. It is the true Libyan flag and thus a symbol of defiance to Gadafy.

“I think most of the young people who started this revolution don’t even remember the flag . . . It just appeared spontaneously in the first days and everyone rallied around it.”

In recent days, Benghazi has swirled with rumours that regime loyalists in the city have subtly subverted the flag – turning it upside down so the green band is on top or putting the green stripe in the middle – to allow them identify fellow loyalists while infiltrating rebel gatherings.

Opinion varies as to whether the rebels, if they succeed in overthrowing Gadafy, should retain the standard or come up with a new national flag.

“This is just a temporary flag,” says Ahmed, a volunteer with the opposition. “When we have a completely new Libya we will have a completely new flag. We will start all over again.”

Mahmoud, a dentist in his 20s, wishes to see the pre-Gadafy flag with the inscription “There is no God but God” in Arabic. “Our religion is important to us,” he says.

Gheriani would like to keep the monarchy-era flag as is. “I think most likely it will be our flag. It is what we knew growing up and it is what our grandparents knew,” he says. “I don’t think the young people will change it.”