The revolution that swept Muammar Gaddafi from power in east Libya has been a bonanza for bookstores as curious readers stock up on titles banned during his decades-long rule.
Newly uncensored works on history and religion and books by opposition exiles are most popular, say booksellers in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
“People are thirsty for knowledge, to know about their history,” said bookseller Yusuf al-Muahaishi, who said sales had doubled since mass protests prised much of east Libya from Gaddafi’s grip in mid-February, Reuters reports.
“Books about the history of Libya were banned or censored. They mostly had to be about Gaddafi,” Muahaishi said as he served customers at the al Tamour bookshop in central Benghazi.
Gaddafi is still in power in the capital Tripoli and most of western Libya despite airstrikes by NATO forces. Rebel fighters have made little headway after months of fighting.
Under Gaddafi’s four-decade rule, opposition was crushed, power was concentrated in his hands and the education system used to promote his Third Universal Theory, which sought to steer a course between Islam and Socialism.
Gaddafi banned political parties and set up a system for direct rule by citizens via town hall committees. Critics say the committees had no power in his centralised, authoritarian state and were mere channels for his personal patronage.
Booksellers say Gaddafi’s drive to promote his thoughts and philosophy — partly through his own authorised bestseller, the infamous “Green Book” — meant heavy censorship or the banning of books with other points of view.
Historical works about Libya before the overthrow of King Idris in 1969 were also taboo.
“Demand is good, despite the economic troubles. The most popular books are history books, and books by the exiled opposition. People never used to come in before because they thought censorship meant there was little worth buying,” said Mohammed Jarahi of the Dar wa Maktab al-Fadhel bookshop.
Many religious books were illegal, booksellers said, including those by hard-line Islamists, but also moderate texts.
Under Gaddafi’s rule, some vendors would sell illicit books to select customers, risking lengthy prison sentence.
At Muahaishi’s store, books on religion take pride of place at the shop front, but the next customer bought two books on constitutional law.
He also picked up a free booklet left at the store by activists keen to educate the public about constitutions.
“We have lived 41 years of ignorance, so we have to educate ourselves and others. We don’t have a constitution yet, but we will not have one thrust upon us without us being able to understand it,” said engineer Gebril Zletni.
East Libya is now run by the Provisional Transitional National Council (PTNC), a hastily-formed body that is struggling to administer the region, fend off attacks by Gaddafi loyalists and secure cash, food and medicine.
To make matters more difficult, few Libyans have experience of politics and civil administration given Gaddafi’s tight grip on power.
Osama al-Tanashi, whose book and stationary shop is near the council headquarters, said books on crisis management had been selling well, as well as books on law and development.
“Judges, academics and many members of the transitional council are buying. Such people never bothered with buying books here before because law and academia was heavily proscribed by the government,” he said.
“In Gaddafi’s time, we had no law. We’re starting from zero.”