Libya

I recently got around to watching 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi by Director Michael Bay. I’ll keep my opinions of the movie (and the horrific Benghazi attack) to myself and just say that I very much enjoyed the film. 

What struck me while watching the movie was the use of flags in many shots, most notably the flags of the United States and Libya. That inspired me to write today’s Flag Review on Libya. Let’s take a look into this troubled nation’s flag and explore a bit about the country and its history.

Libya is a nation located in North-Central Africa on the Mediterranean Sea, in a region known as the Maghreb. In its long history, Libya has been under the rule of many powerful empires, including (but most definitely not limited to) the Carthaginians, the Achaemenid Empire (or the First Persian Empire), Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Romans, the region fell to the control of the Byzantine Empire.

The birth of Islam in early 7th centrury led to major Muslim conquests of North Africa and Persia. By 647 AD, the army of the Rashidun Caliphate conquered Tripoli from the Byzantine Empire and controlled much of the Libyan coast. Between 647 AD and 1550 AD, the region would witness power struggles between many Muslim Caliphates, dynasties and brief European conquests. During this time, Islam as a religion would entrench itself into the culture of the region.

By 1551, the Ottoman Empire, which was rapidly expanding across the Middle East and the Balkans, occupied the Libyan region. This weak reign (a series of internal conflicts and civil wars in the Tripolitania region would break out during Ottoman rule) lasted up to 1911: the start of the Italo-Turkish War. The result of this war was Italian colonization of the region. Two decades after the war, Italy established Italian Libya or “Italian North Africa”, which held the same borders as modern-day Libya. Italian rule saw the start of major infrastructure and industrial projects that looked to modernize Libya. The Italian colonization, however, was met with resistance by the Libyan people. In addition, Libyans were subjected to harsh treatment by the Italians, which resulted in the death of many indeginous people in the region.

During World War II, Libya would be liberated from Italian occupation as the Allies pushed through North Africa and across the Mediterranean towards Sicily. In the years following the war, the region would be administered by Allied forces. In 1951, with the assistance of France and the United Kingdom, Libya declared its independence as a sovereign nation and established the Kingdom of Libya. It was led by King Idris I, a prominent Libyan political figure and leader of the Senussi, a Muslim order well-known in Libya. Eight years later, the discovery of oil reserves in the nation quickly transformed Libya into an extremely wealthy nation.

It’s during this time that Libya’s flag would take shape. The same year that Libya gained independence, the Libyan Constitution established the official national flag. The flag (a 1:2 ratio) consists of three horizontal stripes of (from top to bottom) red, black and green, with the black stripe being twice the width of the other two. In the center sits a white star and crescent charge.

The flag of Libya.

Black, green, red and white are of major importance in the Arab world. They make up the Pan-Arab colors and are used in many Middle East nation flags. Their origins come from Islam and the Muslim dynasties that spawned from the religion’s founding. Original depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were shown with white and black flags. Green and red were also seen as representing Islam and were used by some Muslim dynasties. In the early 1900s, these four colors would be incorporated in the flag used by Hijaz in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Their flag would inspire many nations of the Middle East to include the same colors. It’s no surprise, then, that Libya’s flag would use the Pan-Arab colors to highlight Islam’s importance in the nation’s history.

Some might be wondering if this flag is part of the Pan-African flag family, due to its horizontal tricolor of red, black and green. While it is true that the flag of Libya bears an extremely close resemblance to the Pan-African flag, it is unlikely the flag was influenced by Pan-Africanism. Libya’s past is deeply rooted in Islam and the country is in close geographic proximity to the Middle East. Further, government documents outlining Libya’s flag suggest the colors of the flag hold religious meaning.

The star and crescent are also well-known symbols in North Africa and the Middle East. The crescent held importance to Ancient civilizations, such as the Babalonyans and the Carthaginians . After the founding of Islam, the crescent became associated with the religion. Turkey’s use of the star and crescent in their flag (following the end of the Ottoman Empire) influenced many other Arab nations, including Libya, to incorporate the symbols in their own flag. In Libya’s flag, the unique white star and crescent on a black field may have originated from the flag of Cyrenaica. Cyrenaica was a proposed emirate (encompassing the eastern area of modern Libya) by King Idris and the United Kingdom in 1949, which was never officially recognized by the United Nations.

The flag of the proposed Emirate of Cyrenaica. Cyrenaica was never officially recognized by the international community.

King Idris’ rule and the Kingdom of Libya would not last long. In 1969, Libyan military colonel, Muammar Gaddafi (sometimes spelled as Qadhafi), and his fellow commanders launched a coup d’état, overthrowing the King and establishing the Libyan Arab Republic. However, the nation was far from a Republic. Gaddafi developed a cult of personality and ruled as a dictator, inprisoning and murdering any opposition to his regime.

Under Gaddafi’s command, Libya flew under a few flags, but the one I want to highlight is probably the most memorable. Behold, the green flag of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, or the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Gaddafi changed the nation’s name a number of times). 

The flag of Libya, 1977-2011.

Adopted by Libya in 1977, this fantastic flag is literally a green field. Besides being a symbol of Islam, green was also used to represent Gaddafi’s philosophy, which he published in a book titled… can you guess… The Green Book. You will find this flag as an example of a bad flag in “Good” Flag, “Bad” Flag by Ted Kaye, as it has no unique symbolism or design and cannot be identified if it were in grayscale. However, I would argue its use of a single color is, in itself, unique. Further, there are many tricolor flags one could not identify in grayscale. Gaddafi’s flag is not creative (and represents years of oppression by a ruthless dictator), but it’s definitely memorable.

The early 2010s saw Gaddafi’s power begin to collapse. The Arab Spring movement led to many anti-government protests across the Arab world. Such movements found their way to Libya and in 2011, protests began across the nation demanding an end to the Gaddafi regime. Their demands, however, were ignored and Gaddafi’s regime refused to relinquish control of the nation. This led to the start of the Libyan Civil War, which concluded eight months from the start, with the death of Gaddafi and an end to his more than 40 years in power. During the war, the old 1951 flag of Libya resurfaced and was used by rebel factions as a symbol of opposition to Gaddafi and his supporters. This flag is still in use today to represent the new Libya.

Gaddafi’s death left a power vacuum in Libya, with competing rebel groups vying for control of the country. The nation’s instability provided the perfect breeding ground for the formation of many radical militant groups. One such group, Ansar al-Sharia, was responsible for the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi in 2012.

Today, Libya is still in turmoil. A second civil war broke out in 2014. While a ceasefire was negotiated between the warring factions in 2020, internal fighting continues to plague the country. Its political and economic forecast is dire, with many people displaced by a decade of war.

As for my opinion on Libya’s flag: I am not a huge fan of the color scheme, but they have strong religious and historical meaning, so it’s hard to find fault in their use. All around, it’s a clean flag design. I hope one day it will represent a nation that healed from its violent past and came out victorious over tyranny.

Thanks for reading!


Sources

Central Intelligence Agency. (n.d.). Libya. The World Factbook 2021. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/libya/

Fowler, G. L. (2022, February 17). Libya | History, People, Map, & Government | Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/place/Libya

Hashim, A., & Bishara, M. (2011, February 24). What’s in a flag? Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2011/2/24/whats-in-a-flag

Libya. (n.d.). CRW Flags. Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/ly.html

Libya, 1977-2011. (n.d.). CRW Flags. Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/ly_1977.html

Libya profile – Timeline. (2021, March 15). BBC. Retrieved February 21, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13755445

Znamierowski, A. (2020). The World Encyclopedia of Flags. Lorenz Books.