Fly the flag
Sashimono, Heraldic standard, Knight banneret or Star-spangled banner? The Arab awakening did not necessarily change colours, analyses Gamal Nkrumah
The rewriting of history invariably commences with a new banner -- a flag hoisted high heralding a fresh beginning. The ensigns of the Arab awakening are no exception to this general rule. Some are fascinatingly ugly to my eye. And I always suspect the moral judgement of critics who sneer at the taste of the revolutionaries they used to be.
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From top: King Farouk and his official banner; Egypt's monarchial flag; Libya's post-Gaddafi flag; Gaddafi's banner; Cyrenaica's old flag
Flags dazzle because they set the scene. The colours, the symbols and the symbolism count. There are times in a nation's history when hoisting the national flag high just lifts the spirits of the revolutionaries and political activists who engineered the change. Arab Spring revolutionaries occasionally pulled earlier flags back into their countries' national life. And then, there is the adrenaline of the transformation of a nation, the thrill of raising the regalia of a revolution or an uprising with pomp and ceremony. So why did some Arab Spring revolutionaries choose to hang on to the national flag, while others unceremoniously discarded the old and empty emblem?
Flags claim a few instances in which the insights of a single mind and eye shift the paradigm of symbolic possibilities. Most flags are designed with the such insight into the heart of a nation that they seem imbued with a spiritual sense that makes them appear touched with the divine. How many European nations incorporate the crucifix, crosses, into their flags? Islamic countries, in sharp contrast, are replete with crescent and stars. "I believe that nation-states that are relatively new creations from a historical standpoint are susceptible to change flags more often than long-established nation states," Egypt's esteemed columnist Salama Ahmed Salama told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"Pro-democracy protesters and activists in countries with an ancient history as a nation-state such as Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen did not see the urgent need to change their national flags. While pro-democracy protesters in relatively newly created states such as Libya were keen to change the flag associated with the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi," Salama expounded.
The Emirate of Cyrenaica's white crescent and five-pointed star against a severe black background was King Idris Al-Sennoussi's personal flag, as well as the official banner on Cyrenaica, the spiritual stronghold of the Sufi order he headed. The sombre insignia of Cyrenaica burst into Technicolour, a tricolour of red, black and green spangled with a luminous white crescent and five-pointed star, when Libya was proclaimed an independent and sovereign nation incorporating Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. Make no mistake, though. The black band of Cyrenaica is by far bigger than the red and green stripes encasing it.
Politically, this signifies the preeminence of Cyrenaica in the new post-Gaddafi Libya. It was in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, that the anti-Gaddafi uprising was first sparked. The citizens of Cyrenaica were on hand for the Libyan Revolution's triumph. Happy to expound on Gaddafi's shame and his humiliating demise, they devised -- nay reworked -- a new-old flag inhospitable to all he represented. Indeed, if Libya's National Transitional Council revolutionaries have a vision it is retrospective.
From the vantage point of a revolution that first erupted in Benghazi and Cyrenaica the monarchical years of King Idriss Al-Sennoussi look like the golden years. If Tripolitania and Fezzan have considerable clout in the post-Gaddafi Libya then not much of it, alas, is to be found in the country's new flag.
The turncoats often rewrite history. This is certainly the case in Libya, and to a lesser extent in Syria. Gaddafi's banner was the green and pleasant land's legend. When Gaddafi's green flag flapped, none of his henchmen batted an eyelid. His taste for the incremental did not stop at adopting a frugal green flag. His was an ambitious prognosis which was half-baked and half-promised and which never materialised. He desperately attempted a flurry of projects to try and rejuvenate Arab unity and then Pan-Africanism -- both the Arab League and the African Union have flags that are predominantly green, a colour replete with symbolism.
Flags, after all, are emblems of lavish mythmaking. Gaddafi had hotheadedly imposed a bland and banal plain green flag to match his infamous Green Book. Green is symbolic of Islam, but that is not the reason Gaddafi chose the verdant hue as his hallmark. As a man born into a Bedouin family of desert dwellers, he probably viewed green as the colour of hope, fertility and plenty. Red was once the colour of revolution. Green now appears more politically correct as the colour of environmentalists.
The Cimmerian black of Cyrenaica ominously speaks of the dark days ahead. Whether the Libyans who took up arms against Gaddafi and partook in the 17 February Revolution consciously and fully understood the significance of the preeminence of the Cyrenaican black flag remains an unresolved mystery that is bound to unfold in the months ahead.
Still, flags set the stands alight. Very often, as was so obvious in the Arab awakening, the revolutionaries did not have the luxury of plenty of time in which to refashion the events that had propelled them to power and enabled them to hoist a new flag high. In Libya the impetus for reverting to Al-Sennoussi's flag was nevertheless a peculiar disconnect between past and present. Libya's anti-Gaddafi revolutionaries discovered an old flag in which they found their national identity certificate.
As for Egypt, the case was not as compelling for the protesters to revert to an earlier Egyptian flag. First, one of the prime complaints about Egypt's 25 January Revolution has been not the dearth of diversity of its protests but its heterogeneity -- Islamists of all hues, leftists of all shades, liberals, nationalists of all political persuasions and anarchists to boot. If the ideological orientations of the activists were and are myriad and diffuse and at times diametrically opposed, they all held the flag of ex-president Hosni Mubarak in the highest esteem.
As far as Egypt's national flag was concerned, there was a unified aesthetic to the movement to oust Mubarak that tenaciously held to a defining national flag -- the Pan-Arab triband of red, white and black with the Eagle of Saladin proudly spangled in the centre. Thus did protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square signpost their values.
The groundswell of political and social unrest did not include the spontaneous nostalgia for the monarchical, pre-July 1952 Revolution flags as was the case in Libya with the unstoppable yearning to restore the pre-Gaddafi national flag.
Democracy is presumably about individual choice, even though in Gaddafi's case his Jamahiriya was undoubtedly about the choice of one particular individual. That perhaps was why Gaddafi's flag had to go. That was not the case as far as the Egyptian democratic awakening was concerned.
Egyptian flags since the days of Mohamed Ali and his descendants were invariably studded with stars and crescents, modeled on or inspired by Ottoman originals. Take the last monarchical flag of Egypt, for instance. A handful of monarchists hold on adamantly to Egypt's 1922-52 flag.
The Pan-Arab tricolour signalled the end of identity politics in Egypt. The 1922-52 flag had a green background sporting a white crescent and three white stars. The three stars represented the three religions predominant in Egypt at the time, namely Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The stars represented not so much the religions per se as they did the religious communities of the country. Each community used to have its own brand of identity politics.
The adoption of the Pan-Arab tricolour represented a seismic shift away from religious identity politics to Pan-Arab politics with the onus on economic and social issues such as social justice and equal opportunities. Each new era begets its banner.
The three stars of pre-July 1952 Revolution also represented the three territorial components of the kingdom -- Egypt, Nubia and Sudan. The green background, of course, signified the preeminence of the predominant religion of Egypt, Islam.
The shift from crescents and stars to Islamic birds of prey was a long time brewing. The Pan-Arab tricolour was initially adorned with two green stars representing Egypt and Syria when the two countries were amalgamated in the United Arab Republic.
Under the late president Anwar El-Sadat, the Hawk of Qureish, the emblem of the clan of the Prophet Mohamed, replaced the two green secular stars. The obsession with the identity of the national bird took surprising forms. Egypt under Mubarak reverted to the Eagle of Saladin, modified slightly from the 1952 version. Interestingly, the red band was a slightly darker shade of red. Why this is so remains an unresolved mystery.
The Hawk of Qureish was the coat of arms of Syria prior to the creation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958. Sadat abhorred the hawk partly, I presume, because of its association with the Arabs with whom he severed diplomatic relations after he signed the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Sadat championed the Eagle of Saladin precisely because it was symbolic of a broader Pan-Islamism rather than a more narrowly defined ethnocentric Pan-Arabism.
Syria is an entirely different kettle of fish. The present-day flag of Syria is a triband of red, white and black with two green five-pointed stars. It was the flag of the short-lived United Arab Republic (UAR) of the heyday of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the last vestige of the Pan-Arab union and, of course, the banner of the ruling Baath Party of Syria. As such it is largely unacceptable to the pro-democracy protesters in Syria.
The Pan-Arab flag's triple roots go back to the 1950s. White is symbolic of the bloodless nature of the 1952 Revolution. The black band symbolises the end of oppression and foreign imperialist domination. The red is the blood of martyrs.
The triband of the Free Syrian Army and of the Syrian anti-Assad revolutionaries is the flag used before the Baath Party came to power and was the official emblem of the country until 1963.
The Baathist banner has to go, the anti-Baath and pro-democracy protesters in Syria insist. Their choice flag is a tricolour of green, white and black bands with three red five-pointed stars. The current pro-democracy tricolour was adopted twice before in 1932-58 and 1961-63. Syria, after all, is a country that has adopted six different flags as the national banner since independence from France in 1946 -- a vivid reflection of the political instability that has characterised Syrian political dynamics ever since.
So what do the three red stars signify? Some say they stand for the three successive Arab revolutions in modern history. Others, however, claim that the stars represent Damascus, Aleppo and either Latakia or Deir Al-Zour. Stars are important for their prescient capacity to cross genres and accentuate ideologies. Take Israel's Star of David, for instance. It is the emblem of Zionism.
Trees, too, and leaves can be powerful national symbols. Take the Maple Leaf of Canada or the Cedar of Lebanon.
"We expected stronger support and far more commitment to our cause from the Arab League. The latest developments are half-hearted. Too little, too late," complained Syrian pundit and pro-democracy activist Bahiya Mardini, head of the Arab Committee for Free Speech. She told the Weekly that the Baathist flag represented the repression of the Baath regime and the oppression of the Syrian people. It has long ceased to be the symbol of Pan-Arab unity as far as the majority of Syrian pro-democracy protesters are concerned. "We no longer see it as the flag of the defunct UAR. We see it as the symbol of despotism and dictatorship," she added.
Flags, after all, are merely a piece of fabric with a distinctive design-signaling device. So why do people attach such emotional significance to a piece of coloured cloth? "Flags are a public display of a national consciousness. Flags are signals of a spiritual aspiration and proclamation of a national identity. Unfortunately, some revolutionaries of the Arab awakening are eager to eradicate any semblance of the old order and the ousted regimes and are eager to adopt a new flag that reflects their new aspirations for a more prosperous future. Some choose to do so without a deep political perspective and analysis," Editor-in-Chief of the Egyptian daily Akhbar Al-Youm El-Sayed El-Naggar told the Weekly.
Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen adopted the Pan-Arab tricolour -- red, white and black -- the Arab Liberation flag. As his own flag began to droop, Iraq's Saddam Hussein dropped the two green five-pointed stars of the secular Baathists for a highly stylised "Allah Akbar" -- God is Greatest.
The flag of Egypt is a tricolour of equal horizontal red, white, and black bands. These are the Pan-Arab colours and the Egyptian political establishment has been most reluctant to change the flag since the 1952 Revolution. Yes, the flag has been modified or slightly altered, but the tricolour has remained the same ever since.
Today, the Eagle of Saladin is Egypt's national emblem, just as the Hawk of Qureish is Syria's. The Eagle of Saladin is centred majestically in the central white band. This has not always been the case. In the past, the two green five-pointed stars took pride of place in the white central band of the Egyptian flag.
What is surprising is that, alongside the enduring Pan-Arab tricolour, there has always been a pragmatic aspect to the enigmatic flag. Yemen has done away completely with any embellishments or accoutrements, and the Yemenis stick to the triband plain and simple.
None other than Mubarak himself adopted Egypt's Eagle of Saladin on 4 October 1984. Yet the revolutionary pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square stuck to their guns and favoured the national flag authorised by Mubarak. The instinct of nearly all societies is to stick to legacy.
Of course, there is always the pragmatic aspect. Few activists had the time to devise a new flag for Egypt. Even fewer were keen on adopting the monarchical pre-July 1952 Revolution flag.
the moral of the story is that the bloodier the revolution, the more determined the revolutionaries in their respective Arab states to demolish all symbols of the past dictatorship, including the national flags associated with the ancien regime.