The Libyan Flag: A Relic of What Lies Ahead
In a remarkably short space of time, the ‘new’ Libyan flag (formerly that of the Kingdom of Libya) has quickly been transformed into a wild assortment of souvenirs. It’s been imprinted onto t-shirts, caps, mugs and wristbands, carved into keyrings, turned into cake icing, and even worn as a hijab by ardent female revolutionaries. In Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, street vendors roll out their wares to any passersby who wants to buy a symbol of their civic pride. For many, the flag represents the new Libya, premised on equality and prosperity. By displaying it, you articulate that collective hope.
The key word here is ‘hope’. The flag is such a potent symbol because it evokes the Libyan revolution: the sacrifices that were made, the unity forged through shared struggle. It takes the click of a button to buy it now, but it was not long ago that even ownership of the flag was impossible. Hanging it up in a public place was a virtual death warrant. It’s become an easily available commodity, but it was far from an easy possession to claim. Patriotic sentiment in Libya is fuelled by loss and suffering, and by remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for the country. The flag is central to this expression of national identity.
But that’s not all. If you display the flag, you signal your commitment to the revolutionary cause. You mark yourself out as a member of the winning side; you can participate in its narrative of success. This avowal of belonging is necessary in Libya, at a time when “authenticity” infiltrates social and political discourse. Who was against the regime from the very start of the uprising, and who’s merely a social climber? (‘mutasaliqq’). Who actually fought for Libya, and who’s now taking credit for the fighting? How do we guarantee that remnants of the old regime no longer occupy positions of power?
These questions give voice to a sense of fear – real or imagined – that newly-formed Libyan unity might be under attack. When calls for federalism first emerged, demonstrators across the country rallied under the Libyan flag, and in one fell swoop, all federalists were denounced as conspirators who were never genuinely part of the uprising anyway. Revolutionary credentials are a key bargaining chip, and the flag serves as their visible marker. The continued presence of pro-Gaddafi loyalists in Libya reinforces this allegiance to the national cause.
Academics have often associated flag-waving with ‘blind patriotism’ and unconditional support for government policies. Most interestingly, Libya turns this argument on its head. The new flag isn’t associated with the existing government and its policies, or even with a political system. As a symbol of the Libyan uprising, it doesn’t represent a political reality, but a political future. By its very nature, it is anti-status quo.
You could argue that this is a key strength: the flag serves as a constant reminder of the struggle against injustice. Maybe so, but as with any powerful political symbol, it can be romanticised and glorified, evoking ‘what we have achieved’ instead of ‘what we have to achieve’. The abstract notion of a ‘free Libya’ is infinitely more attractive than the concrete ‘nation’ now on our hands, stumbling shakily on its way to elections. Yet it is the latter which Libyans must strive to build and develop. The question now is: will the new Libyan flag in the future be imprinted on hearts and minds as well as on items of clothing? Will it start representing our political reality as well as our psychological attachment to the revolution? Only time will tell – until then, flag fashion reigns supreme.