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Tunisian Poll To Provide Bellwether For Arab Spring

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Tunisians, who touched off the Arab uprisings and rid themselves of a dictator nine months ago, are now going to the polls to elect a constitutional assembly. There is pride, confusion, but mostly optimism ahead of Sunday's vote.

The people of Tunisia had basically one choice at the ballot box for the last 50 years. But now they have more than 100 parties and thousands of candidates to choose from. And they're getting a taste of a real political campaign.

The streets of Tunis, the Tunisian capital, pulsate with get-out-the-vote activity. Music blares from the tent of one political party set up on a main avenue. Volunteers such as Ibrahim Abasi hand out flyers.

"I am proud that we now have freedom and can say what we want. It's a new era. People are finally breathing now, and we are very optimistic," he says.

On Sunday, Tunisians will elect the members of a 217-seat assembly that will draft a new constitution.

Across town, 27-year-old Omezzine Khelifa campaigns for one of the major parties. She says the stakes for this election are high.

"To write a constitution that reflects the will of Tunisians to be in a true democracy, first. To preserve all that we acquired since independence in terms of women's rights, but also advance and have real equality between men and women, to protect human rights," she says.

Islamists Versus Secularists

Khelifa, like probably half the women in Tunis, does not wear a headscarf. Tunisia may well be the most moderate and secular Arab nation, and its citizens have always enjoyed more personal freedoms than their neighbors.

Islamist parties were persecuted under ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But now Islamist candidates are expected to do well in Sunday's vote. And many people worry that Islamists may become too influential in Tunisian society.

There is excitement at the headquarters of Ennahda, the main Islamist party. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, returned from a 20-year exile in London and now hopes to lead his party to a majority of seats in the new assembly. Unlike most of the newly founded parties, Ennadha has benefited from an existing grassroots organization. Party member Kamel Harbaoui says many Tunisians identify Ennahda with resistance to Ben Ali.

"They trust us because we are the main party that sacrificed a lot. We got tortured, we got killed, we got exiled. And we still fight for our people. We got the revolution and we got our rights back," he says.

Ennahda leaders have been stressing that the party is moderate and wants to work within a democracy. But many secular Tunisians fear that once in power, Ennahda would seek to put its Islamist stamp on this tourist-friendly nation by doing things like chipping away at women's rights and banning alcohol.

An online video campaign by secular parties warns that the Islamists threaten Tunisia's future. Called The Day After, the video features dramatic portrayals of ordinary Tunisians struggling to adjust to life in an Islamist-led country. In it, a shopkeeper laments that the tourists have all stopped coming.

First 'True Map' Of Tunisian Political Power

Analysts say the balance in Tunisian society will be preserved if Ennahda does not get more than 30 percent of the vote. The party is particularly popular in the poor, interior of the country, but no one really knows its true level of support. Mohammed Mahjoub, a philosophy professor, says after decades of dictatorship, Tunisia is about to find out what it is made of.

"It's the first time ... that we are going to have a true map of the political trends and the political forces in Tunisia," he says.

On Thursday, Tunisians celebrated news of Moammar Gadhafi's death in neighboring Libya. It was a vivid reminder of just how much the Arab world has changed this year.

Political scholar Hamadi Redissi says Sunday's vote in Tunisia will be crucial.

"This election means a lot for the Arabic world. If it works in Tunisia, that means that others have the chance to become democratic," he says. "If it doesn't work in Tunisia, it will not work elsewhere. Neither in Libya nor in Egypt."

But Redissi and other Tunisians say they are optimistic that democracy will take root in Tunisia.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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