TRIPOLI: Five years since Muammar Gaddafi was killed in a NATO-backed uprising, the strongman’s quixotic Green Book — once Libya’s sacred and ever-present scripture — is now ridiculed in the conflict-hit nation.
Published in 1976, it became Libya’s unofficial “constitution”, announcing a “third way” between capitalism and socialism that shaped political, economic and social life in the North African state for close to four decades.
“The Green Book followed us wherever we went, at school, on television and in the street,” says Ahmad, a local journalist, who only gave his first name due to the sensitive topic.
Gaddafi unveiled his much-heralded “third way” seven years after he led a group of Libyan army officers in a 1969 coup d’etat that toppled the monarchy.
His vision, mixing elements of pan-Arabism and anti-colonialism, quickly gave way to despotic rule that suppressed all dissent and fostered the discontent that led to the 2011 uprising.
“Just before the 2011 revolt, regime security agents gave me copies of the Green Book. They told me to hand it out to people around me,” says Ahmad.
“I got rid of them recently because I was afraid it could get my relatives in trouble,” adds the father of eight.
During his chaotic rule, slogans from Gaddafi’s eccentric worldview permeated every aspect of Libyan daily life.
In homes, phrases from the book appeared on food labels, since everything was imported and packaged by the state, while in schools they were a key part of curricula.
Quotations from the Green Book also adorned the walls in public buildings and even the stationery in offices.
‘We couldn’t understand’
Gaddafi maxims such as “compulsory education is imposed ignorance” were scrawled on the sides of buildings and shops had to strictly adhere to the text’s prescribed phrasing or face punishment.
“Most of us didn’t read it and the parts that we knew about we couldn’t understand,” jokes Ahmad.
Gaddafi was killed by rebel fighters in his hometown of Sirte on October 20, 2011, but residents of the capital have not forgotten their distain for the strongman or his once-infallible book.
Sitting behind the counter at his Tripoli book store, shop owner Abdessalam says he got rid of all the copies he once had.
“My bookshop would be burned down instantly if I offered that book for sale,” he tells in a hushed voice, eyes scanning the aisles for eavesdroppers.
“No one here is a supporter of the Gaddafi regime but just the fact of possessing the text… could have disastrous consequences,” said Abdessalam, who also declined to give his surname.
‘Burn in hell’
Since Gaddafi’s ousting, Libya has descended into chaos, with rival forces vying to control territory and the country’s vital oil wealth, and rival administrations claiming to be the legitimate, post-uprising government.
Even if the colour has faded, graffiti mocking Gaddafi’s Green Book can still been found on the walls along Tripoli’s seafront, with one poking fun at the “masterpiece”.
Another shows both the slain strongman and his book in a garbage bin with flies swirling around and the words: “Burn in hell with your book”.
Nearby, another artist has used an Arabic wordplay to change the title of the book to the word “idiots”.
Despite the painful memories the book still evokes, some people have held on to a few copies for posterity.
“I collected all the editions, they are scattered here and there and over the years my family has hidden them,” says Maha, a travel agent in her 50s.
In spite of his celebrated pomp, Gaddafi never built a statue of himself, so demonstrators during the 2011 uprising looking for an icon to destroy gathered and set on fire copies of the Green Book.
“This book has been witness to one of the most terrible pages in my country’s history,” says Maha as she sips her small cup of thick, black coffee.
Ahmad adds: “The Green Book has disappeared from circulation but you can still see its effects. The misfortunes we live with today are the result of the thinking spread by that book.”