Relics of Ideology: Pan-Arabism in Flags


Leon de Damas | 21 May 2018


The political symbols and flags associated with the revolutionary Pan-Arab movement were once an imposing presence across the Middle East and North Africa. Through them we may chart the gradual evolution and ultimate demise of a revolutionary ideology.

Ideologies do not exist in perpetuity; they’re usually subject to either mutation or abandonment. The failure to achieve their goals accordingly results in the discrediting of ideology and proponent alike. A fine example of this is Pan-Arabism, an ideology of revolutionary promise that exhibited a typical trajectory before a petering end and renunciation by the end of the century. The popular acclamation of Pan-Arab ideals and its decline can most clearly be analysed by examining the use of Pan-Arab iconography and symbolism in political discourse.

When looking into Arab political symbolism, flags are a good place to start. As a result of the Arab Revolts that took place during the First World War against Ottoman rule, four colours became particularly prominent amongst the Arabs: red, white, black, and green. The significance of these colours comes from both the near-past and the historic-past; they are significant because of their use in the Arab Revolts themselves but also because they allude to previous eras, namely to the Great Caliphates, with white representing the Umayyad Caliphate, and green representing the Fatimid Caliphate. After the Second World War, these colours reasserted themselves in the political sphere. This is seen particularly in the horizontally striped red, white, black tri-colour (sometimes referred to as the Arab Liberation Flag) that is still in use in as the basic template in five countries (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan). Their near contemporaneous adoption is testament to the urgency of the Pan-Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s.

The use of these flags alone is evidence of Pan-Arabism’s role in the post-war period, it is their transformations since that reflect its decline. A good example of this is the history of the current Iraqi flag. This flag has its roots (albeit in a slightly modified version) in the early sixties, when the tricolour was adopted with the added feature of three green stars in anticipation of a political union with neighbouring Syria as well as Egypt, with those two nations (then known as the United Arab Republic) possessing the same tricolour flag but with two green stars. The flag of Iraq, however, has since experienced three revisions, each indicative of the declining role of Pan-Arabism. The first change consisted of the adding of the takbir (an abbreviation of the Islamic phrase Allahu akbar) in Saddam Hussein’s own handwriting, demonstrating a break with the secular tradition of the Pan-Arab movement in general (and the Ba’ath Party in particular) in favour of Islamic influences. The second alteration, in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003, is the change of the text to the traditional Kufic script, which has its origins in Iraq itself and is more specifically Iraqi, further indicating the gradual abandonment of the Pan-Arab ideology. The third modification is perhaps the most symbolic; this is the elimination of the three green stars, which initially represented the main supporters of Pan-Arabism: Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. This successive removal of ideological emblems from the preeminent visual representation of the nation demonstrated that the ideological core had become little more than a vestige.


This gradual retreat from Pan-Arabism has naturally taken several forms, both political and cultural. Historical figures, for one thing, were often invoked, but over time came to embody nationalism and became increasingly dissociated from a shared Arab history. For example, during Gaddafi’s 2008 Italian visit, the Libyan leader wore a picture of the Libyan anti-colonial mujahideen Omar Mukhtar in chains being arrested by Italian colonial officials. This is a clear example of an Arab nation focusing on a national, rather than a shared, historical narrative. The figure of Saladin demonstrates this point even more clearly. While the historical Saladin was in fact ethnically Kurdish, not Arabic, he was appropriated first as an Arab hero, becoming a national hero only in line with Pan-Arabism’s decline. The nationalist manifestation of Saladin can be observed in the form of the present-day Egyptian flag as well as a contemporary Iraqi administrative unit. The Egyptian flag differentiates itself from other users of the Arab Liberation Flag by its inclusion of the Eagle of Saladin, a stylised crest. The basis for this usage is Saladin’s role in the late Fatimid period, which was geographically based in Egypt. The Iraqi claim to Saladin - there is a governorate named after him - , however, derives from his birth in what is today Iraq. A reaffirmation of Iraqi history prior to the Arab period became important too, manifesting itself in the invocation of figures like the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II. The Iraqi attempt to replicate Soviet T-72 tanks was part of a project called Asad Babil (‘Lion of Babylon’) and Nebuchadnezzar II featured on government-issued Iraqi medals.

The political disintegration of Pan-Arabism can be observed in the gradual political evolution of Sudan from 1969 to 1983 - perhaps the clearest example. The leader of Sudan, Gaafar Nimeiry, had attained power through a military coup modelled on the successful coups of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muammar Gaddafi in Egypt and Libya, respectively, (even going so far as to imitate the other two by referring to his fellow putschists and himself as members of the ‘Free Officers Movement’) as well as the establishment of a party named the Sudanese Socialist Union (à la Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union). Despite the early ideological fervour however, Nimiery’s inability to maintain a firm political standing without allying himself with religious ideologues, resulted in the Islamisation of Sudanese politics and the imposition of sharia law in 1983. This precipitated the Second Sudanese Civil War, which in turn relegated Pan-Arabism in Sudan to an ideological relic. But while the decrepit status of the ideology in Sudan was primarily internally caused, that was not the case for neighbouring Libya. Though Gaddafi’s break with Pan-Arabism was never as sudden and dramatic as that of Nimeiry’s, the ideology was nevertheless marginalised as a consequence of its rejection of by his neighbours (namely Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba) and ultimately replaced by Pan-Africanism (Gaddafi even going so far as to call himself ‘King of Kings’ of Africa). Even though throughout most of Gaddafi’s rule the official name of the country remained the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Republic and the anthem continued to be an Egyptian battle song from the Suez Crisis that was recontextualised in a wider Arabic understanding, both of these were mere relics by the time of the Colonel’s death.

The Arab world remains in the midst of the convulsions that have engulfed many of its nations, with the last country still officially led by an Arab nationalist government - the Syrian Arab Republic - struggling to maintain its territorial integrity. Incidentally, a Russia-proposed draft constitution is now suggesting a change of that country’s name to simply “The Syrian Republic” - further evidence of Pan-Arabism’s demise. The region has shifted from one governed by a secular, progressive, socialist Pan-Arab ideology to one where chaos and theocracy are increasingly prevalent, leaving us to reflect on the future impact of such a transition. What began as a revolutionary movement is now largely dead, the majority of the Arab population having been born in a post-Pan-Arab world.


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