TUNIS — In the early morning hours Sunday, Tunisians dipped their fingers in blue ink and marked ballots in the first election of the Arab Spring.
At some polling stations, lines wrapped around two blocks and many would-be voters had been waiting since 6:30 a.m. — 30 minutes before the polls opened — to cast their votes.
“It’s the first time in my life I’ve actually voted,” said Turkane Seklani, 37, in Tunis. She cast her vote for Ettakatol, a liberal party. She woke up at 6 a.m. to get to the polling station and to make sure there would be no mix-ups at the polls. “I am so happy.”
It was here that the year’s first Arab revolution accomplished the unthinkable, forcing a long-ruling autocrat to flee. Emboldened by the Tunisian revolt, the region’s streets awakened. Egyptians ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Libyan protesters-turned-fighters fought a bloody war for eight months and on Thursday killed Moammar Gaddafi. In Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and beyond, the unrest continues.
On Sunday, Tunisia — where the most peaceful of the revolts unfolded — took the next step as citizens voted. The success or failure of the vote to elect assembly members who will write the nation’s new constitution and appoint an interim leader will set a precedent for other Arab nations where citizens are calling for democratic reforms. But it will also be a window into the character of the governments that emerge from this year’s tumult: secular or religious, democratic or despotic.
“If we succeed, we’ll send the message that democracy is possible as we sent the message that it is possible to remove a dictator,” said Sihem Bensedrine, a journalist and human rights activist who has fought for decades to expose abuses and defend freedom of expression in Tunisia. “We will be the recipe.”
Still, she worried that the elections could be marred by low participation, violence and accusations of fraud.
But most are confident the elections, overseen by an independent commission, will be free and fair, with thousands of domestic observers and hundreds of foreign observers at the polling stations.
“We do not have the right to fail,” Bensedrine said.
In the country of 10.4 million, about 55 percent of eligible Tunisians registered to vote after the revolution. But turnout could be higher — people can vote by presenting an identification card without first registering.
More than 110 parties are running, which probably means that no one faction will control the National Constituent Assembly. The number of parties has confused prospective voters used to the old system, which for decades was rigged to guarantee that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s now-dissolved Democratic Constitutional Rally party won. Although a few opposition parties were allowed, they were oppressed and marginalized.
In the more than nine months since Ben Ali’s ouster, the interim government has not solved the problems that drove Tunisian youths to the streets, including economic woes, rampant corruption and the lack of opportunity. Activists fear that remnants of Ben Ali’s regime will use feelings of disappointment to steer people from the polls and undermine the election.
Tunisians have been stocking up on water and milk after hearing rumors about the chaos the election would trigger. People linked with Ben Ali’s reign were suspected of having started the rumors. Members of Ben Ali’s party have been absorbed into some of the secular parties, and former ministers are leading two new parties, al-Watan and al-Mubadara.
The capital has been gripped by a mix of electric excitement and anxiety in the days before the vote.
Outside glitzy malls, volunteers pass out fliers for their parties. On Thursday and Friday, candidates held their last town-hall meetings and rallies to explain their platforms, and spirited debates broke out on street corners over what the new Tunisia should look like.
Perhaps the most closely watched element of the election is how well the relatively moderate Islamist Ennahdha party performs after having been banned for years by Ben Ali, who used the group to fan fears of an Islamist takeover.
The party’s members were arrested and tortured under Ben Ali. Since his fall, the group has emerged as an organized party with a message of social justice that resonates with the masses outside the elite of this pristine coastal capital.
Secularists, meanwhile, are divided across a number of parties, unable to unite under one platform. Most promise to preserve Tunisia’s more modern and secular character while respecting the nation’s Arab and Islamic identity.
“There is a fight between the new and the old,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, head of al-Qotb, a secular alliance of political parties and civic organizations. “For us, the society has its unique identity but is open to democracy and human rights that don’t contradict with Islamic principles. . . . The other vision, represented by Ennahdha, wants to bring back the glory of Islam.”
Just outside the Bourguiba Institute of Modern Languages in the Hai al-Khadra neighborhood of Tunis, veiled women from Ennahdha passed out fliers Friday that promised to protect women’s rights and promote freedom, democracy and a civil state.
A woman with sleek red hair, carrying a Lacoste purse and sporting Ray-Ban sunglasses, took the flier but was suspicious. Imna Hanidi, 20, said she worried that the party could rise to power and impose a strict religious code in a place that has long had a secular elite.
“How do I know that what you promise is true?” she asked. “What are my guarantees? How can I trust you?”
Almi Zaineb, a law student and Ennahdha volunteer, answered: “The people are the guarantors. Democracy means all of us participate to have a new constitution whether minority or majority. Everyone has freedom now.”
Inside the vast Ennahdha headquarters, Intissar Ghannouchi, the daughter of the party’s leader, dismissed fears of an Islamist takeover.
“We know the mistakes of the past, and we very much know this is our one opportunity to distribute power in the right way,” she said. “Ennahdha stands for dignity for people, justice, and it stands for equality and openness and respect between people, the state and the citizen. . . .We’ve experienced what happens when you take away that freedom.”
With so many choices on the ballot, many Tunisians said they are still undecided going into Election Day but are excited by the prospect that their ballots will actually count.
“I’m happy, glad and freaked out,” said Amira Aouididi, 22, a lawyer still trying to choose among three parties. “We don’t know what we’ll get, and new things are terrifying.”