TUNIS // For years, Hamma Hammami’s chief concern was staying out of a Tunisian jail. Today, it is fielding non-stop phone calls from local and international media.
“The fact that we spoke against Ben Ali gives us credibility,” said Mr Hammami, 59, spokesman for the long-banned Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT), juggling phone interviews with a hurried dinner at home in Tunis, the capital. “People want to hear our voice.”
For more than two decades the PCOT was among dissident groups persecuted by the government.
Last month’s removal of the president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, unshackled opposition parties but gave them a new challenge: connecting with voters after decades on the margins of political life. At stake is the future of Tunisia.
As the country prepares for elections, it remains unclear whether opposition parties will rise to balance - or replace - the mammoth Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD), Mr Ben Ali’s political machine.
The RCD has dominated politics since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, as part of a power structure erected by the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba.
While Mr Bourguiba grudgingly allowed opposition parties into politics in 1981, they struggled to operate unhindered and gain supporters. Some leading opposition figures faced harassment and arrest by Tunisia’s security apparatus.
Mr Hammami’s experiences are a case in point. He was born to poor farmers in the village of El Aroussa, where poverty and corrupted socialism led to his political awakening in 1967, when he was 15.
“That summer my father was ill, so I took his place at the local cooperative,” said Mr Hammami, whose task was hauling water by donkey from the river to the orchard. “Talking with the peasants, I saw how they were exploited. And I started to ask myself questions.”
At university he studied philosophy and joined the student union. In February 1972, police tear-gassed a student union rally and arrested leaders, including Mr Hammami, who was beaten and hung in stress positions during six weeks in detention.
“From that experience it was clear there was no freedom in Tunisia and that our dignity was being trampled by a dictatorial regime,” Mr Hammami said.
In 1973 he went into hiding for more than a year as the government rounded up dissidents, and was eventually convicted in absentia of belonging to a banned organisation.
A general strike in 1978 ultimately pushed Mr Bourguiba to open politics to opposition parties provided they did not question his rule. The PCOT, founded in 1986, opposed Mr Bourguiba and was forced to work in secret. The following year the party applied for official recognition that would allow it to operate legally after Mr Ben Ali deposed his ailing predecessor. But recognition never came.
“Ben Ali arrived promising democratic reform,” Mr Hammami said. “But instead he hardened repression.”
To many foreigners, Mr Ben Ali’s Tunisia was a tourist hotspot with advances on women’s rights and steady growth as the economy liberalised. But beneath the surface were secret police, tapped phones, censored internet and media, and a climate of fear.
After members of the Islamist An Nahda movement scored well in legislative elections in 1989, authorities jailed thousands of Islamists accused of plotting violence.
Token opposition parties loyal to Mr Ben Ali provided a facade of democracy, while police pressured media and conference venues to shun parties critical of Mr Ben Ali’s regime, Mr Hammami said.
“For example, if a recognised opposition party wanted to hold a public meeting, they would be told at the last minute that the hall wasn’t available or that the electricity wasn’t working,” said Mr Hammami. “Ben Ali’s strategy was to isolate political parties from the people.”
As the spokesman for an unrecognised party, Mr Hammami was repeatedly arrested, while the PCOT published a secret newspaper and sought to engage discreetly with student and labour unions.
That role made Mr Hammami, 59, well-known in political circles and to human rights groups in Tunisia and abroad, but cost him the chance of earning a living, he said. His wife, lawyer Radhia Nasraoui, supports the couple and their three daughters.
Meanwhile, Mr Ben Ali enjoyed wide constitutional powers and the RCD controlled parliament. In 2002 presidential term limits were lifted and the age limit raised to help keep him in office, changes approved by referendum.
In 2008 the constitution was changed to require that presidential candidates have two years’ experience as a party leader, sidelining major opposition candidates from 2009 elections. Weeks before those elections, Mr Hammami was beaten by men he says were plain-clothes police at Tunis airport when he returned from France, where he had criticised the Tunisian government in an interview with Al Jazeera.
Last month police arrested him again after he gave interviews to foreign media about mounting anti-government protests. Two days later he was freed, hours before Mr Ben Ali fled the country.
An interim coalition government now has the task of organising elections. It has welcomed previously banned parties into politics and promised Tunisians a new constitution. Last week the interior ministry suspended the RCD.
Mr Hammami has been in constant demand, his mobile phone ringing incessantly with calls from fellow PCOT members and, above all, media.
“We’re already known to people in political life, like union leaders and human rights activists,” he said. “Now, we’re becoming known to all Tunisians.”