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Tunisians Wake To Their First Free Elections

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Tunisians are voting Sunday in the country's first free and democratic election. The small North African nation was the first to overthrow its dictator last January in a popular movement that soon spread to other authoritarian Arab nations.

Now, analysts say what happens in Tunisia will be key to whether democracy is to take root across the rest of the Arab world.

Crowds were out on the streets of Tunis Sunday morning, and an underlying excitement filled the air of the capital city. For the first time in their country's history, Tunisians are going to the polls to vote for the candidate of their choice.

"It's my first time," said Ramsey Bislema as he stood in line at a polling station with a group of middle-aged men. It's a good feeling, he said, and something new for all of them.

"We didn't feel it before," he said, "freedom and real democracy."

Tunisians have lived under one-party, one-man rule since the country won its independence from France in 1956. Tunisians say the last 10 years under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were unbearable.

In January Tunisia became the first Arab nation to overthrow its dictator. Social media played a huge role in that revolution, helping people to mobilize and pass on information. These days, sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have been key to political parties getting their campaign messages out.

A get-out-the-vote video airing on Tunisian television gives a feeling of the huge change the country is now going through.

"We were depressed, broken, terrified and exploited," says a voice, to scenes of despairing citizens. "But now we are motivated, ambitious and optimistic. Our heads are up. Tunisia will vote."

But with more than 100 parties and thousands of candidates to choose from, voting is not so easy. And some Tunisians say it's also a bit stressful.

In a working class neighborhood of Tunis, another group of middle-aged men who grew up together sat outside their usual cafe. Before, they said, they could only talk about football. Now they can't stop arguing about politics.

Mohammed Khelifa said the uncertainty was killing him.

"Some of us don't know who to choose, and it's a mystery who's going get the most votes," Khelifa said. "Before, we always knew who would win, and I guess we kind of got used to that."

Tunisians are electing a 217-seat assembly that will draft a new constitution as well as choose a president. One of the biggest political debates at cafes and dinner tables is how much support the Islamist Party will get.

Thousands of people showed up at a campaign rally for the Islamist Party, called Ennahdha, on Friday. The excited crowd sang the Tunisian national anthem. Many people there said they trust the Islamists because of what they've been through. Under dictator Ben Ali, religious people were persecuted and jailed. Many Islamists fled into exile.

Ennahdha says it wants to work within a democracy and has no intention of trying to impose Islamic rule, but many Tunisians fear the party has a hidden agenda. Tunisia is the Arab world's most moderate and modern country, and its large, secular segment of society is afraid of an overly religious influence in the new Tunisia.

But political analyst Fare Mabrouk says it's normal for religious parties to be part of Tunisia's democracy. The biggest secular party, the Progressive Democratic Party, is also expected to get a lot of votes. Mabrouk says it's not the exact score, but the process that's important in the end.

"This is the first time an Arab country [has] tried to build a new democracy — an Arab democracy," Mabrouk says.

"The Arab world needs a successful transition to democracy, and I think Tunisia is the best candidate for that," he says. "So we have here the conditions for this transition to succeed. So we need to succeed. We have no choice — not only for Tunisia, but also for rest of the Arab world."

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

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