TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisians began voting Sunday in their first truly free election, the culmination of a popular uprising that ended decades of authoritarian rule and set off similar rebellions across the Middle East.
Voters — women with headscarves and without, former political prisoners, young people whose Facebook posts helped fuel the revolution — are electing members of an assembly that will appoint a new government and then write a new constitution. They're definitively turning the page on the 23-year presidency of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown by a monthlong uprising on Jan. 14 stirred by anger at unemployment, corruption and repression.
The party expected to come out on top, Ennahda, is a moderate Islamic party whose victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.
The unexpected revolution in this quiet Mediterranean country — cherished by European tourists for its sandy beaches and desert oases — set off a series of similar uprisings against entrenched leaders, an event now being called the Arab Spring. If Tunisia's election produce an effective new government they will serve as an inspiration to pro-democracy advocates across the region, including in next-door Libya, where longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was killed last week by rebel forces.
The campaign season has been marked by controversies over advertising, fears over society's religious polarization and concerns about voter apathy, but in the run-up to the vote a mood of optimism and excitement in the capital was palpable.
Soldiers were stationed in several areas to keep order, but as of mid-morning the election appeared calm.
"It's a historic day, a moment of joy and celebration. Even if I have to stand in line 24 hours, I would not give up the chance to savor this air of freedom," said Touhami Sakouhi, a former political prisoner standing in line at a crowded voting station in the poor Ettadhamen quarter of Tunis.
In the richer 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.
The ballot is an extra-large piece of paper bearing the names and symbols of the parties fielding a candidate in each district. It's a cacophony of choice in a country effectively under one-party rule since independence from France in 1956, and where the now-popular Islamist party Ennahda was long banned.
Retired engineer Bahri Mohamed Lebid, 73, said he voted "for my religion," a sentiment common among Ennahda supporters. He described the last time he tried to vote, in 1974, when he said polling officers forced him to cast a ballot for the ruling party despite his objections.
Others expressed concern that despite its moderate public line, Ennahda could reverse some of Tunisia's progressive legislation for women if the party 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 voted for the center-left PDP party, the strongest legal opposition movement under Ben Ali. She said she was "afraid" of Ennahda.
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 some fear may cause confusion during the polls.
More than 5,000 foreign observers are monitoring the vote.
Voters in each of the country's 33 districts, six of which are abroad, have a choice of between 40 and 80 electoral lists, consisting of parties and independent candidates.
A proportional representation system will likely mean that no political party will dominate the assembly, which is expected to be divided roughly between the Ennahda party, centrist parties and leftist parties, requiring coalitions and compromises during the writing of the constitution.
"This is the first time in my life I've truly voted. It is something extraordinary," said Turkane Seklani, a 37-year-old casting her ballot in polling station set up in the Bourguiba High School in Tunis. The sun was still rising as she cast her ballot soon after 7 a.m., but the capital was already humming with political activity.
She said she voted for center-left party Ettakatol, because its leader, a doctor who opposed Ben Ali in the years before the uprising, "is a good man and I find him honest and with integrity."
In the 10 months since the uprising, Tunisia's economy and employment, part of the reason for the revolution in the first place, has only become worse as tourists and foreign investors have stayed away.
Many have expressed indifference about the election out of frustration that new jobs have yet to appear and life has not improved since the revolution.