04/06/2011 05:57 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2011

Black, Red, Green And Gaddafi: The Story Behind Libya's Flag(s)

The flag that flew over Libya during the monarchy that preceded Muammar al-Gaddafi's rule—a black, green, and red tricolor stamped with the star and crescent of half a dozen Muslim countries—reappeared on Benghazi's streets almost immediately after the first spasms of revolution this winter.

Within days, its resurrection had spawned an entire cottage industry: African immigrants set up antiquated sewing machines on the sidewalks, fabric shops reported shortages of the three hot colors.

Soon demonstrators were hoisting the flag above embassies in Rome and London, rebel fighters painted it on their gunstocks and computer-animated versions fluttered across YouTube.

The ubiquitous symbol of the revolution, an expression of the Libyan people’s longing for democracy?

Maybe. Where some Libyoligists saw a Libyan Old Glory, others saw, well, a red flag. Yes, the protestors talked about freedom and democracy, but they had claimed as their symbol the flag of a monarch much of the country had hated.

To understand the flag’s meaning, to understand the meaning of the whole awful-exhilarating-confusing situation unfolding in Libya now, it helps to go back to a much earlier revolt.

The year was 1915, and the land that makes up what is now Libya consisted of three Italian colonies: Tripolitania and Fezzan to the west, and Cyrenaica to the east.

The Senussi, a religious order of Muslims based in Cyrenaica, had just launched a guerilla war against both British and Italian troops in Cyrenaica and Egypt. They were ultimately routed, but their rebellion earned them a reputation for bravery and pride, and the banner they waved from the backs of their camels—a white star and crescent against a black background—became a regional symbol of resistance.

Years later, in the run-up to Libya's independence and unification after World War II, the three provinces chose the Senussi people's spiritual leader as their king—primarily, said the Libya historian Ronald Bruce St John, "because they didn’t have any other options."

Crowned in 1951, King Idris promptly plunked the Senussi insignia in the middle of Libya's new flag. The green and red stripes on either side represented Tripolitania and Fezzan, respectively.

For Western Libyans who suspected Idris of favoring his native Cyrenaica, the "marginalized" green and red stripes may have have seemed an inauspicious sign. “Probably not the most politic thing to do,” said St John.

Nor was it the last instance of poor political judgement on Idris' part. As St John explained, Idris was a reluctant and negligent ruler, especially when it came to western interests. “He liked to focus his time and energy on religious studies and religious affairs, and also tribal affairs in the east,” he said.

In September of 1969, a cohort of young army officers toppled Idris' regime, driving the king into exile in Egypt. An idealistic 27-year-old Tripolitanian named Muammar al-Gaddafi emerged as the country's new leader.

Gaddafi chose a simple design of white, red, and black horizontal bars for his regime's flag, inspired by neighboring Egypt's. The Libyan leader viewed Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser as a revolutionary hero.

Following Nasser’s death in 1970, Gaddafi attempted to merge Libya, Egypt, and Syria into an Arab super-state (it’s often said that Libya was never big enough to contain Gaddafi’s ego), and all three countries added to their flags a golden hawk of Quriash, the emblem of the prophet Muhammad's tribe.

The dream of a Gaddafi-led nation stretching from Tripoli to Damascus didn't pan out. In 1977, disgusted with Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and frustrated by both Syria and Egypt's refusal to submit to his authority, Gaddafi replaced the pan-Arab flag with what can most accurately be called a conceptual work of art: a solid-green rectangle. What better representation could there be of Gaddafi’s monomania and obsession, his insistence on total control?

If Gaddafi, who actually designed it, fell short of fulfilling his vision to revolutionize the Arab world, at least he revolutionized the world of flag making—it’s the only single-color national flag in existence.

Even its echoes of Minimalist painting are fitting: Libya, under Gaddafi’s rule, is a minimalist country, with no rights, no freedoms, few jobs. And if you believe Gaddafi’s rhetoric, no ruler. Gaddafi claims he’s a mere “symbol” of the people, a sort of human flag.

For proponents of freedom and democracy, it’s probably not much fun living in a country where the leader believes a single symbol suffices to reflect the ideals of the entire population, especially when he considers that symbol to be himself. (In general, when leaders take their iconography too seriously, things get scary; see Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.)

So it would seem to be a positive development that Libya now has two official flags—Gaddafi's and King Idris' original design, reclaimed by rebels as their own—as a growing contingent of national governments, including Italy, the Maldives, Qatar and France, have recognized the legitimacy of the rebels' National Transitional Council.

Yet assuming the rebels prevail—a huge assumption at this point—it’s unclear whether their republic will end up looking more like a true democracy or like Idris’ kingdom, where certain tribes enjoyed advantages over others.

Anti-Gaddafi fighters in the east have been quoted saying they’ve embraced their flag simply because it harkens back to a pre-Gaddafi Libya. But so far, they haven’t had much opportunity to test its popularity in the west, where, by many accounts, a lot of people still support Gaddafi.

If the rebels win and raise their flag over the western cities, will the local people salute it? And if they don’t, what happens?

In a 1951 speech announcing Libya’s independence, King Idris exhorted the country to “salute our sacred flag, the sign of our struggle and unity.”

After years of violence and oppression, maybe the words that came next in Idris’ speech will finally have some bearing on reality: “And we remember now the heritage of our forefathers, hoping that our new era, which starts as from today, will be a peaceful and salutary era for our beloved country.”