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Tunisians vote in first free elections
Tunisia votes in elections seen as bellwether for Arab world; Islamists set for strong showing
By The Associated Press

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) ' Tunisians waited in lines for hours under the sun to vote in the nation's first truly free elections, the culmination of a popular uprising that 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 in the North African country ' are electing a 217-seat assembly that will appoint a new government and then write a new constitution.

The party expected to come out on top is the moderate Islamic movement Ennahda, whose victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.

Voters are 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.

Halfway through election day officials were exulting that turnout was high and had already exceeded expectations, without giving any exact figures. Soldiers were helping keep order, though no problems were reported in the first part of the day.

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 elections 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 old elections were fraudulent and this one is for our children and grandchildren so that even if I soon die, I will be happy and content," said Tayyib Awishi, 83, dressed in a crisp white robe and skull cap, in a crowded polling station in the working class Tunis suburb of Hay al-Tadammon.

At a nearby station in the same neighborhood, former political prisoner Touhami Sakouhi said he was ready to wait in line all day.

"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," he said.

In the more affluent 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. The symbols are meant to aid the illiterate, estimated at about 25 percent of the population in a country with one of the most educated populations in the region.

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 caused some confusion.

Mogadi Shukri, 43, a day laborer, said since he hadn't registered he had to travel to a faraway station to vote, so he didn't go. "I feel like I'm missing out," he said sadly.

Voters in each of the country's 33 districts, six of which are abroad, have a choice of between roughly 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.

According to the international election commission running the elections, there are 14,083 local and international observers watching polling stations, including delegations from the European Union and the Carter Center.

"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 downtown Tunis.

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 elections out of frustration that new jobs have yet to appear and life has not improved since the revolution.

Outside the school-turned-polling station in Hay al-Tadamon, a group of young men sat on the street, sipping tea and mocking journalists talking to people who had just voted.

Belhussein al-Maliki, 27, said he fought in the January uprising that also engulfed this downtrodden suburb and lost a relative in the fighting.

"We are jobless, we have nothing and we won't vote," he said bitterly. "Everything is the same, the world is the way it is, and the world will stay the way it is."

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