At 7am, at the front of a long queue outside a polling station near the Tunis casbah, Samira, 50, impatiently waited for the doors to open on Tunisia‘s first-ever free elections. A shop assistant, she had been camped there since 5.45am in order to be the first voter. She hadn’t slept a wink. “How could I sleep? It’s the first time I’ve ever voted in my life,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “What’s one night when we’ve waited decades for freedom? This ballot box is what we took to the streets for.”
Nine months after a people’s revolution ousted the despot Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired uprisings across the region, Tunisia held the first vote of the Arab spring. The country of 10 million is being watched by the Arab world as a kind of laboratory for the transition from dictatorship to democracy. If these elections succeed in ushering in a credible new political class after 50 years of a one-party state, it could boost the democratic hopes of neighbours such as post-Gaddafi Libya, and Egypt, where there is profound uncertainty despite elections in November that should end military rule.
One common complaint among Tunisians has been that they never felt able to celebrate their revolution. Ben Ali’s departure was followed by weeks of curfews, uncertainty and pockets of violence stoked by remnants of the old regime. Then people again took to the streets and occupied the casbah in protest at what was to become a succession of weak, discredited and ineffective transition governments featuring faces from the old regime. Ben Ali has sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, but his state apparatus remains in place; torture and police brutality continues, the justice system is craven and compromised, corruption is rife, and unemployment – a main cause of the revolution – is rising.
“At last, there’s an overwhelming sense of joy and relief today,” said Mehdi Lassoued, a worker from a tyre company, wrapped in the Tunisian flag. “I feel we’re finally moving on, that we can finish this revolution, vote for a legitimate government.” A Tunis university professor, Ghofrane Ben Miled, said: “There’s so much expectation and excitement on the street. I didn’t sleep, I was wired. It felt like the nights during the revolution, but calmer. I’m 42 and I’ve never voted before.”
Cars hung with flags beeped through the streets; hundreds queued in the sun, making hats for each other out of newspapers. Asked who the winner would be, most said: “We all are.”
During 23 years under Ben Ali’s notorious secret police, elections were a farce and few turned out to vote. Those who did were often, in fact, dead. Ben Ali would win by unlikely scores, such as the 99.91% he announced in 1994.
The people’s uprising that began in December with the self-immolation of a poor vegetable seller in the desolate rural town of Sidi Bizoud was not led by any party, ideology or religion. So the election is the first test of a new political landscape. There are now more than 110 parties, and scores of independents. Tunisians will appoint a 217-seat assembly with the role of rewriting the constitution in preparation for parliamentary elections in at least one year’s time.
A complex proportional representation system means that no one political party will dominate the assembly. But the Islamist party, An-Nahda, outlawed and brutally repressed under the regime, is expected to win an important share of the vote. The party has campaigned as a moderate, pro-democracy force, vowing to respect the diversity of Tunisia, one of the most educated countries in the region, with a strong secular tradition and the most advanced women’s rights in the Arab world. The party likens itself to Turkey’s Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) – liberal and conservative. Secular critics say An-Nadha is an unknown quantity and fear that once elected, hardliners could seek to enforce a more fundamentalist Islam on Tunisia’s civil society.
When An-Nahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who recently returned from 22 years exile in London, arrived at his polling station to vote, followed by camera crews, he walked straight to the entrance. But he was jeered by crowds, who said: “The queue, the queue! Democracy starts there!” He swiftly took his place at the back, adding: “The people have a hunger for democracy.”
The assembly will see An-Nahda sit with an array of secular, centrist parties, such as the centre-left Ettakatol which was in opposition under Ben Ali. Its founder, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, 70, a doctor and professor of medicine, was barred from running for president in 2009 but is tipped to seek a senior position in the new government. He faces opposition from the well-known lawyer Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, 67, of the rival PDP. A new party, the Congress for the Republic, led by the long-exiled human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, was also expected to gain seats.
Authorities predicted a high turnout, with early estimates of over 60%, and as high as 80% in some precincts. The count was due to begin at 7pm but full results would not be released until Monday. The coalition assembly will then face wrangling over who to appoint to top jobs or whether to focus on the vast task of producing a new democratic constitution, the foundations for a new state, while a government of technocrats keeps the country ticking over.
With unemployment officially at 19% but thought to be much higher and topping 40% for graduate women, the government will be under pressure to kickstart the economy and deal with the huge divide between Tunisia’s tourist coast and the poor interior, where the self-immolation and uprising began.
In Ettadhamen, a poor, densely populated suburb of Tunis which rose up in the revolution and saw young men killed by Ben Ali’s forces, hundreds of people were queueing to vote outside schools. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Lameen Muhammed, a teacher. “Nine months ago you couldn’t even talk about politics in the street for fear of the secret police. The stress was unbearable. Now, everyone’s out debating and voting. It has been difficult, but we’re leaning towards democracy. With this vote, the people will have spoken.”
A 52-year-old builder voting for the first time said he would choose An-Nahda. “They have a history of struggle against the regime, they were treated brutally, their families suffered. I want them to improve security. There are a lot of problems here, alcohol is sold openly, and there are drugs sold on the street.”
A stay-at-home mother, 44, in long robe and headscarf said she had voted for the centrist secular party Ettakatol because she liked what they said on TV.
Meanwhile, a student had chosen the CPR, “They’re a new party, I trust them. I’m nearly 20 – I’m desperate to think I can hope for some kind of job.”
Amid the optimism, there was a sense of vigilance. Many said that the people had staged the revolution and they would take to the streets again if they felt they were being cheated or let down. Najila Ahrissi, one of the many cleaning ladies who leave Ettadhamen each day to work in the homes of the rich for around £150 a month, had voted for a small secular party. She said: “In the old days, every election here was fixed. Let’s just hope we can trust the politicians of tomorrow.”
Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian