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Arab insurgents return to independence-era flags to spurn dictatorship

In Syria, Libya and Sudan, revolutionaries see national banners of the past as a way of showing their rejection of the regimes they wish to overthrow

Sudanese demonstrators wave Sudan's independence-era flag (R) as smoke billows from burning tyres during a protest in Khartoum, June 30, 2020.  (ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)
Sudanese demonstrators wave Sudan's independence-era flag (R) as smoke billows from burning tyres during a protest in Khartoum, June 30, 2020. (ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AFP) — In Syria, Libya and more recently Sudan, Arab revolutionaries have begun brandishing old independence-era flags, attacking newer ones as symbols of the dictatorships they want to topple.

“In Syria and Libya, the (current) flags were more marks of the regime than national symbols, which is why they became targets,” said Gilbert Achcar, a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

When Libyans rose up against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, they rejected the all-green flag the dictator had adopted in 1977.

The 2011 protesters burned Gaddafi’s flag in the street and spontaneously adopted that of Libya’s monarchy, which had ruled after independence in 1951 until King Idris I was toppled by Gaddafi in 1969.

But the return to the flag used by the monarchy “was nothing to do with nostalgia for the monarchy,” said Achcar. “It was more a rejection of Gaddafi.”

Most Libyans had never lived under any regime but that of the veteran dictator.

But they enthusiastically adopted the flag of independence, bearing a white star and crescent of Islam along with colored bands representing the regions of Fezzan (red) at the top, Cyrenaica (black) and Tripolitania (green).

Libyans celebrate ahead of the fourth anniversary of the Libyan revolution which toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi, on February 17, 2015. (MAHMUD TURKIA / AFP)

For one anti-Gaddafi activist who asked not to be named, “it was the most powerful symbol of the February 17 revolution.”

Wary of Gaddafi’s agents, protesters produced the flags in hiding, carefully buying each color of fabric in a different shop to avoid attention.

Some ingenious activists came up with the idea of rolling the flags up and freezing them, then hanging them at night from bridges to unfurl as they thawed in the morning sunshine.

‘Democratic period’

In Syria, it was the flag created by independence fighters in 1932 that was adopted by the opposition from June 2011 onwards.

It also comprised three bands of color: green for the early years of Muslim rule, white for the Ummayid dynasty and black for the Abbasids, an Arabic dynasty that ruled over the Islamic empire from around 750 A.D until the mid 13th century.

The three red stars across the middle represent the districts of Damascus, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor.

The Assad regime, by contrast, clung to its red, white and black standard with two green stars, introduced in 1980 by late president Hafez Assad.

He was the father of President Bashar Assad, who remains in power despite a devastating decade-long civil war.

“In Syria and Libya, two factors were at play,” said Karim Emile Bitar, a political science professor at Beirut’s Saint-Joseph University.

“There was nostalgia for the 1950s, seen as a decade of relatively liberal Arab nationalism before the huge authoritarian shift of the 1960s, and also the desire to turn the page on the dictatorships and change the symbols they had imposed.”

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters raise the opposition flag as they arrive in the border rebel-held town of Qirata after leaving their barracks in the town of Jarabulus on their way to the northern town of Manbij, on December 25, 2018, (Nazeer AL-KHATIB / AFP)

George Sabra, a veteran opposition political figure who played a key role early on in Syria’s uprising, said the independence flag reminded people of the relative freedoms and economic development of the 1950s.

“It’s the flag of the democratic period in Syria, before the start of the coups and the totalitarian state,” he said.

Other flags have also cast shadows over Syria during the uprising: the black standards of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists and the Islamic State group, which once ran a jihadist-proto state ruling millions of people in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Symbol of freedom

Despite the changes in Libya and Syria, one country at the heart of the Arab uprisings has kept its 1952 flag.

Egypt’s red, white and black standard, with the golden eagle of 12th-century ruler Saladin in the middle representing strength and power, has remained.

“Despite its authoritarian leanings, the Nasserite regime that took power in the July 1952 revolution continues to be seen by many Egyptians as a legitimate revolt against a corrupt monarchy and colonial interference,” said Bitar.

Neighboring Sudan was bypassed by the first wave of Arab revolts.

But the country experienced an uprising in 2019 that forced veteran strongman Omar al-Bashir from power, and has revived interest in the country’s independence-era flag.

A Sudanese protester with the the country’s independence-era flag painted on her forehead gathers with others for a sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, May 20, 2019. (Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

Today, it flutters above the house of Sayyid Ismail al-Azhari, the head of independent Sudan’s first government in 1956.

Opposition activists have plastered the building’s perimeter wall with graffiti supporting the “December 2018 revolution”.

The flag itself, again, has three horizontal bands: blue for the Nile river, yellow for the desert and green for agriculture. Then president Gaafar al-Nimeiri dropped it in 1970, in favour of the colours of Arab nationalism.

But Aisha Musa, a member of the country’s ruling sovereign council, supports a return to the independence flag.

“This flag symbolizes freedom and so it’s appropriate, after the revolution, for our country in all its ethnic and cultural diversity,” she said.

“Furthermore, the current flag is linked to a military coup. Military governments are not really appreciated in this country.”

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