First Free Election in Tunisia Brings Joy and Pride
By Leila Fadel
The Washington Post
Monday, October 24 2011
TUNIS — Voting lines wrapped around street corners on Sunday and parents brought children to witness the milestone, the first truly free vote in Tunisia’s history and the first election of the Arab Spring, which began in this small North African nation and sent shock waves through the region.
There were few reports of fraud or violence, and election officials said turnout was higher than expected, with an estimated 7 million of 10.4 million people eligible to vote. Tunisian officials said they would probably release preliminary results Monday or Tuesday.
For Tunisians, it was an opportunity to have their say in the political rebirth of their country after the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January. But the vote was also closely watched in other Arab countries that are stepping toward democracy after decades of dictatorial rule. Egypt is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in a month, the first since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, and, with the declaration of the formal end of the regime of Moammar Gaddafi, Libyans are expected to go to the polls in eight months.
“Whatever the outcome is, it is our decision, it is not imposed on us,” said Ismail Trabelsi, 42, an environmental engineer who went to vote in the middle-class neighborhood of al-Aouina at 7 a.m. He waited in line for more than an hour to cast his ballot in a school, one of more than 4,000 polling stations. “We’ve waited 55 years for this moment,” he said.
Residents of the capital brimmed with joy and pride as they marked their choices on a large paper ballot that contained the name of each party as well as symbols representing them, for those who can’t read. Voters dropped the ballots in plastic bins, dipped their fingers in blue ink, and, as they walked away, often looked giddy.
More than 14,000 international and domestic observers were on hand to watch for election law violations. There were also visitors from Libya, which faces the difficult task of building a democracy in a country long dominated by one man.
“It’s going to be hard,” said Salwa Boughaghis, an activist and lawyer from Benghazi who played a key role in the early days of the Libyan revolution. “What’s happening here is amazing,” she said.
The votes cast Sunday will elect Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly, a body of 217 representatives who will draft a new constitution and appoint an interim government. With dozens of parties running, none were expected to receive a majority of votes, although the once-banned Ennahdha movement, which formed a moderate Islamist party, was expected to take the most votes.
Election rules forbid parties from campaigning on election day, and officials said they would prosecute violations. The country’s new independent electoral commission also warned parties against putting pressure on voters.
Overall, the elections appeared to be a success, officials said.
“Revolts spread from Tunisia to Wall Street, and now democracy will spread from Tunisia to the world,” said Thameu Jaoua, 46, a civil engineer who had never cast a ballot before Sunday.
Ben Ali led Tunisia for 23 years, until he fled the country Jan. 14, in the most peaceful of the Arab Spring’s uprisings. Under his rule, voters cast ballots through a system of colored cards that were slipped into translucent envelopes, making it easy for authorities to see voters’ choices. Red cards were for Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally party, and most never dared to choose the colors of the marginalized and repressed opposition parties.
Sunday’s vote probably meant much more to older citizens than it did to the young. In a primary school in the poor western suburb of Hay al-Tadhamon, Tayeb Awishi, 83, brandished his ink-dipped finger. He said he had voted in every rigged election since 1956, when Habib Bourguiba declared Tunisia’s independence from France and assumed power. But this was his first real vote, Awishi said.
“We were kneeling, and now we’re standing,” he said. “If I die now, I will die with serenity. Even if I don’t benefit from this, my children and my grandchildren will.”
The vote was not without problems. Some wanted badly to vote but could not afford to take the taxi to their polling stations or did not understand where they were required to cast their ballots. The names of a few thousand registered voters did not show up on the rolls, but the commission said that the problem would be rectified and that those citizens would be permitted to vote.
Fathi Ben Amer, 40, walked for hours in Hay al-Tadhamon, accompanied by his wife and young son. At each voting center he found, he presented his ID card. But each time, he was turned away and told to go someplace else. He had not registered to vote in advance, and although there were special balloting centers for the unregistered, he was unable to find one.
Finally, he gave up. The disheveled day laborer never cast his ballot, and he went home dejected.
“We suffered from the old president, and we are suffering today,” he said.
Nearby, along the potholed streets of this sprawling district, young men idled as voters walked to polling centers. These were the same streets in which Tunisians revolted last winter, fighting police, dodging snipers and enduring tear gas. Some died for the cause. Among some who survived, there is a sense that the revolution has yet to pay any dividends.
“We are jobless, we have nothing, and we will not vote,” said Bel Hussein al-Malki, 27, a political prisoner under the previous regime. “Everything is the same. The world is the way it was, and the world will stay the way it is.”