Tunisians voted today in the first free election of the Arab Spring, nine months after former President Zinedine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted following a one-month uprising. The polls opened early Sunday morning with some 4.4 million registered voters picking a 217-member constituent assembly from a field of 11,000 candidates. 80 political parties were represented with some candidates running as independents. Despite worries about voter apathy, hundreds have turned out and stood in long lines for hours to vote, despite high temperatures.
The new multi-party assembly will have the task of writing a new constitution and appointing an interim president and a caretaker government.
Campaigning has been marked by divisions between Islamists and secularists, with the moderate Islamist party Ennahda expected to win the most votes. Concerns have also arisen about tainted money influencing the race, with liberals saying that Ennahda has strongly benefited thanks to financial support from allies in the Persian Gulf. But the liberals have also come under fire, with Islamists and residents of Tunisia’s impoverished interior charging that they have received funding from the business elite of Ben Ali.
Two Arrested Before Elections
The government had deployed 40,000 police and soldiers in the capital and shopkeepers had stockpiled milk and bottled water in the event of unrest. Tunisia has been quiet in the weeks leading up to the election, with isolated protests against Nessma TV.
Two were arrested prior to the elections. Bilal Dhaifallah, an independent Salafist opposed to the elections had participated in protests in the Kasbah against the interim government. Authorities arrested him at his house Saturday night and questioned him over his Facebook profile photo, which shows him in Libya holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
In the Kasbah near government offices, police suppressed a sit-in of young men who, during peaceful protests in January, were shot and are demanding that the government provide basic health care. Tahrir Hammami, a human rights activist, was arrested. One of the hunger strikers is Rachid el-Arbi, who was shot in the upper chest and is now paralyzed from the waist down. His mother, Leila el-Arbi, is not participating in the elections, saying “who would I vote for?” Tarek Dziri was also shot in January and must now use a wheelchair. Still, he came from his town of Fahs to Tunis to join the protest.
Traces of Ben Ali’s Regime Persist
Amid the optimism among Tunisians are ever-present vestiges of Ben Ali’s corrupt and authoritarian rule. While Tunisia’s transition has been for the most part peaceful unlike that of Libya to the east, human rights activists say that much has not changed and some things have worsened. The judicial system remains corrupt and a number of former members of Ben Ali’s regime are now ministers under interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi. High unemployment and economic woes continues to dog the country as Tunisians struggle to eke out a living.
That struggle was ultimately why Mohamed Bouazizi, the young vegetable seller, set himself on fire in protest at his treatment by government officials last December. His self-immolation became the catalyst for the Arab Spring. His mother, Manoubia Bouazizi, told Reuters that she sees the elections as a “victory for freedom and dignity”:
“Now I am happy that my son’s death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice. I’m an optimist, I wish success for my country.”
Marcel Marzouki, founder of a liberal political party and former dissident exile, expressed similar hopes:
“Tunisians showed the world how to make a peaceful revolution without icons, without ideology, and now we are going to show the world how we can build a real democracy. This will have a real impact in places like Libya and Egypt and Syria, after the fall of its regime. The whole Arab world is watching.”
Indeed, the whole world is watching — as Manoubia Bouazizi also said about her son, ““He is no longer the son of Tunisia, he is the son of the whole world.”
Photos taken October 23, 2011, in Tunisia by Bellyglad