Tunisians anxiously await the final results of the freest and fairest elections in the country’s history, and quite possibly in the entire Arab region. Such suspense is a new phenomenon in a country where the result of every “election” used to be a foregone conclusion: a landslide victory for the party of former dictator Zin Abidine Ben Ali.
This time, according to preliminary results, the moderate Islamist Nahda party—banned and persecuted under Ben Ali—will be the country’s strongest political force, with at least 40% (and possibly a majority) of seats. Two leftist parties who say they are ready to work with the Islamists have also performed well.
On Sunday, 10 months after street protests drove Ben Ali to flee, nearly all registered voters lined up patiently to cast the first meaningful ballot of their lives. The constituent assembly they elect will write the country’s new constitution and oversee Tunisia’s transition to democracy. It will also have to address the demands raised by the revolution, from alleviating rural poverty to creating jobs for young Tunisians, to holding members of Ben Ali’s regime responsible for staggering corruption and human-rights abuses.
In the port town of Bizerte, about 38 miles northwest of Tunis, rapper Malek Khemiri had mixed feeling about heading to his local polling station. His group, Armada Bizerta, once made underground songs about police informers and Ben Ali’s mafia-like business practices. Recently, it helped record a get-out-the-vote song. But Khemiri, who voted for a list of independents, is skeptical of the country’s new political parties and afraid they won’t deliver on the revolution’s promise. “People who looted our economy haven’t been prosecuted and are running political parties,” he said.
But the vast majority of Tunisians went to the ballot box in a state of collective optimism and emotional catharsis. “We’re all proud today,” said Touhri Raouf, a school teacher who, like many parents, brought his children along to the polling station. He voted for Nahda, saying the Islamists were “good, honest people” and that Tunisia could use a return to old-fashioned religious values. “We hope for social equality, for an end to stealing, for respect for everyone, for a little freedom,” he said.
In the hills outside Bizerte, in the small rural town of Al Alia, 18-year-old Mohammed Tlish and his friends said the expected the new Tunisia to help them find equality, dignit—and work. “Everyone here is unemployed,” Tlish said.
The Tunisian uprising began in the country’s poorest hinterlands, when a street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the local municipal building to protest his mistreatment and the confiscation of his fruit cart. The revolution was fueled by the anger of the desolate inland rural areas, where unemployed young men spend their days at street-side cafés, dreaming of emigrating.
All the country’s parties promise they will make economic development and a more equitable regional distribution of resources a priority. Over 100 parties participated in the elections, most of them brand-new. In this political cacophony, many struggled to get their voices heard.
In Al Alia’s polling station, two young veiled women looked on bitterly. They had run as candidates on an independent list representing unemployed university graduates. But they knew that they weren’t going to win, they said, complaining that money and religious propaganda had been used unfairly in the campaign. Nahda candidates, they alleged, used money to influence voters, and told people: “If you don’t vote for Nahda you’re not a Muslim.”
Parties across the political spectrum have spent large sums on their electoral campaigns and given out gifts such as packs of cigarettes, gas coupons, food, and schools supplies to poor voters.
Tunisia’s 1 million poorest households, who live hand to mouth, were at the front lines of the spontaneous revolt against Ben Ali. And they suffered the most from the economic instability that followed, says Fares Mabrouk, a blogger and the deputy general manager of a microfinance institute: “We owe our freedom to them. They paid the price for the revolution.”
In the lower-income Tunis suburb of Ariana, a poster showing three of the neighborhood’s young men killed during the revolution marked the turnoff, down a potholed road, to the local school serving as polling station. Ariana and other Tunis suburbs saw some of the most violent fighting of the revolution. Snipers shot protesters and for days the neighborhood was under siege. Angry crowds torched police stations and a nearby supermarket run by the former first lady’s famously corrupt family. “We want freedom, democracy and God’s rule,” said a young male Nahda supporter in the Ariana polling station. “We want everyone to be on the same level.” He said there is greater freedom in his neighborhood now, but that prices have increased and life is actually harder.
The elections here are the first of the so-called Arab Spring. Thousands of international observers monitored them, and, while there have been some reports of small violations, the election process has been widely commended. Egypt, a country eight times Tunisia’s size, whose transition period has been much more chaotic and tense, heads toward parliamentary elections next month. Libya, fully liberated after Muammar Gaddafi’s demise on Oct. 20, has yet to decide what its political transition process will be.
The success of the Nahda party will reverberate across the region and unsettle many of Tunisia’s secularists, who fear that the Islamists’ moderate stance is disingenuous and that their victory will undermine the country’s tourism sector, its liberal social mores and women’s rights. Others, such as dissident writer Naziha Rejiba, say that Islamists and secularists need to find a new balance now. The middle-aged Rejiba has spent most of her life speaking out against dictatorship in Tunisia. She used to write online, anonymously, against the Ben Ali regime. Her site was blocked in Tunisia, and it was only after the revolution that she discovered that loyal readers had accessed her articles using proxy servers and circulated them through email lists.
The great risk for Tunisia isn’t Islamist participation in politics but a return to repression, says Rejiba, who used to receive 4 a.m. phone calls from Ben Ali’s secret police threatening her school-age children by name. For too long, says Rejiba, who today hosts a show on national radio, Ben Ali’s regime and the international community—notably France and the United States—justified dictatorship with the specter of an Islamist takeover. “I’m not saying there isn’t any fundamentalism in Tunisia,” says Rejiba. “But I prefer it to be out in the open. I prefer that they recognize the rules of the democratic game, as Nahda has done.”
The newly elected assembly is “on probation,” she says, and the people will hold it to its promises. Otherwise, “Tunisians know a magic word now: Dégage! (Get Out!)”