Tunis (AP) – The people who started the Arab Spring shared one of its earliest fruits on Sunday: a free election. Tunisians who brought down a dictator nine months ago waited for hours to select those who will help shape their fledgling democracy.
"The old elections were fraudulent and this one is for our children and grandchildren so that even if I soon die, I will be happy and content," said Tayyib Awish, resplendent in a crisp white robe and skull cap at a crowded school-cum-polling station in the working class suburb of Hay al-Tadammon near Tunis, the capital.
The spry 83-year-old voted many times for Tunisia's first two presidents in contests whose results were always known ahead of time, but this time was different. "This is a celebration," he said, gesturing with a finger stained blue by polling station ink.
Women with headscarves and without, former political prisoners and young people whose Facebook posts helped fuel the revolution also were among those electing a 217-seat assembly that will appoint a new government and then write a new constitution.
It was the first truly free election in the history of Tunisia, which was under the control of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali for 23 years. Ben Ali was overthrown Jan. 14 by a monthlong uprising, sparked by a fruitseller who set himself on fire in protest of police harassment, then stirred by anger over unemployment, corruption and repression.
The uprising inspired similar rebellions across the Arab world. The autocratic rulers of Egypt and Libya have fallen since, but Tunisia is the first country to hold free elections as a result of the upheaval. Egypt's parliamentary election is set for next month.
President Barack Obama offered congratulations, saying that "less than a year after they inspired the world, the Tunisian people took an important step forward."
The party expected to come out on top is the moderate Islamic movement Ennahda, or renaissance, though no one party is expected to win a majority of assembly seats. An Ennahda victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.
Preliminary reports indicate voting went smoothly, with up to 70 percent of registered voters turning up at polling stations. Results might not come until Monday or Tuesday.
People waited in line for hours to vote under the strong North African sun.
"Even if I have to stand in line 24 hours, I would not give up the chance to savor this air of freedom," said former political prisoner Touhami Sakouhi, also voting in Hay al-Tadammon.
In the more affluent Tunis suburb of al-Aouina, 18-year-old language student and former protester Zeinab Souayah said, "I'm going to grow up and think back on these days and tell my children about them."
"It feels great, it's awesome," she added, in English.
Ben Ali's regime was among the Middle East's most corrupt and repressive, and his long-calm country was shocked by the self-immolations at the start of the uprising and the ensuing outbursts of pent-up anger. As protests spread across Tunisia, the police crackdown left more than 300 dead.
Protests have simmered in the months since, periodically ending in violence, but Tunisia's interim authorities have generally managed to contain the unrest – and keep the months of war in neighboring Libya from spilling over their common border.
The atmosphere on this extraordinary voting day was electric with excitement, but to the relief of many, not violent. Kamel Jendoubi, the head of the election commission, said there were only some scattered election violations, such as campaigning near polling stations or trying to influence voters. Some parties had received warnings, but he did not name them.
The ballot was an extra-large piece of paper bearing the names and symbols of the parties fielding a candidate in each district. The symbols are meant to aid the illiterate, estimated at about 25 percent of the population in a country with one of the region's most educated populations.
Voters in each of the country's 33 districts, six of which are abroad, had roughly 40 to 80 ballot choices. It was a cacophony of options in a country effectively under one-party rule since independence from France in 1956.
Retired engineer Bahri Mohamed Lebid, 73, said he voted "for my religion," a sentiment common among supporters of the Ennahda movement. He said he last tried to vote in 1974, when polling officers forced him to cast a ballot for the ruling party despite his objections.
Ennahda believes that Islam should be the reference point for the country's system and laws and believes that democracy is the best system to maintain people's rights. It has also said it supports Tunisia's liberal laws promoting women's equality – making it much more progressive than other Islamic movements in the Middle East.
Some voters expressed concern that despite its moderate public line, could reverse some of Tunisia's progressive legislation for women if it gains power.
"I am looking for someone to protect the place of women in Tunisia," said 34-year-old Amina Helmi, her hair free of the headscarves that some Tunisian women wear. She said she was "afraid" of Ennahda and voted for the center-left PDP party, the strongest legal opposition movement under Ben Ali.
There are 7.5 million potential voters, though only 4.4 million of them, or just under 60 percent, are actually registered. People can vote with their identity cards but only at certain stations, which caused some confusion.
Mogadi Shukri, 43, a day laborer, said that since he hadn't registered he had to go to a far-away station to vote. "I feeling like am missing out," he said sadly.
A proportional representation system will likely mean that no political party will dominate the assembly, which is expected to be divided roughly among centrist parties, leftist parties and Ennahda. They will need to form coalitions and make compromises to create a constitution.
According to the international election commission running the elections, there were more than 14,000 local and international observers watching polling stations, including delegations from the European Union and the Carter Center.
Many have expressed indifference about the elections out of frustration that life has not improved since the revolution. Tunisia's economy and employment, part of the reason for the revolution in the first place, has only gotten worse since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia because tourists and foreign investors have stayed away.
Outside the school-turned-polling station in Hay al-Tadammon, a group of young men sat on the street, sipping tea and mocking journalists who were talking to people who had just voted.
Belhussein al-Maliki, 27, said he fought in the January uprising, which engulfed this downtrodden suburb, and lost a relative in the fighting.
"We are jobless, we have nothing and we won't vote," he said bitterly. "Everything is the same, the world is the way it is, and the world will stay the way it is."
Tunisians Turn out in Force for First Free Vote