Skip to main content

Tunisians vote in first election following Arab Spring

By Ivan Watson, CNN
updated 5:08 PM EDT, Sun October 23, 2011
 A Tunisian man walks past a wall covered with posters of political candidates on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.
A Tunisian man walks past a wall covered with posters of political candidates on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "We waited 50 years for this," a voter says
  • The Arab Spring began in Tunisia
  • Candidates are competing for 218 seats in the Assembly
  • The Assembly will be charged with writing a new constitution

TUNIS, Tunisia (CNN) -- Polls closed late Sunday in Tunisia, the torchbearer of the so-called Arab Spring, but voters will not see results of national elections until Tuesday, officials said.

On Sunday, long lines of voters snaked around schools-turned-polling-stations in Tunis's upscale Menzah neighborhood, some waiting for hours to cast a vote in the nation's first national elections since the country's independence in 1956.

"It's a wonderful day. It's the first time we can choose our own representatives," said Walid Marrakchi, a civil engineer who waited more than two hours, and who brought along his 3-year-old son Ahmed so he could "get used to freedom and democracy."

Tunisia's election is the first since a popular uprising in January overthrew long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered a wave of revolutions -- referred to as the Arab Spring -- across the region.

More than 60 political parties and thousands of independent candidates competed for 218 seats in a new Constitutional Assembly, which will be charged with writing a new constitution and laying the framework for a government system.

Voters appeared jubilant on Sunday, taking photos of each other outside polling stations, some holding Tunisian flags.

"It's a holiday," said housewife Maha Haubi, who had just taken her position at the end of the long line of more than 1,000 voters waiting outside an elementary school in Menzah.

"Before we never even had the right to say 'yes' or 'no.'"

Nearby, banker Aid Naghmaichi said she didn't mind the long wait to vote.

"We have waited years for this," Naghmaichi said.

Ali Bergaoui burst out of a classroom waving a Tunisian flag and smiling broadly moments after he voted.

He said he and his wife, Miriam, had a sleepless night in anticipation of the vote. They showed up at 7 a.m. when polls officially opened and waited for three hours.

"We waited 50 years for this," a triumphant Bergaoui said. Miriam Bergaoui's eyes filled with tears as she tried to express the emotion of the moment. But partisan politics were already on display here.

The Bergaouis both said they came in part to vote against Ennahada, the once-banned moderate Islamist party that consistently scored highest in public opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the election.

The campaign period marked an escalation in tension between secular and religious Tunisians.

Religious groups staged angry protests that sometimes turned violent at universities and a private TV channel, to show opposition to the broadcast of the animated film "Persepolis," which included a depiction of god.

Meanwhile, prominent secular politicians, like the Progressive Democratic Party's Ahmed Nejib Chebbi campaigned on anti-Ennahada platforms, warning voters that a victory for the party would mark a setback for Tunisia's development as a secular state.

Tunisia's election -- nearly 9 months since the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali -- has been praised by U.S. President Barack Obama.

"Today, less than a year after they inspired the world, the Tunisian people took an important step forward," Obama said Sunday.

In December, a wave of protests began in Tunisia that led eventually to the ousting of President Ben Ali and his prime minister. Tunisia's dramatic protests were triggered by a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire to protest government harassment.

Bouzazi, who died at the age of 26, became a symbol for the frustrations of the Arab people, with those frustrations erupting in waves of demonstrations and protests across the region.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT