Nine months after a popular uprising that ended decades of authoritarian rule, Tunisians have begun to vote for new leaders who will write the rules of the country’s new political system.
Polls opened at 07:00 local time (06:00 GMT) on Sunday, with about 4.4 million registered voters set to pick a 217-member constituent assembly. That multi-party body will, in addition to drafting a new constitution, also be charged with appointing an interim president and a caretaker government for the duration of the drafting process.
More than 11,000 candidates are running in the election, representing 80 political parties. Several thousand candidates are running as independents.
Polls close at 19:00 local time (18:00 GMT), and results will be declared on Monday.
Al Jazeera’s correspondents on the ground reported that despite high temperatures in and around the capital, hundreds came out and waited for hours in queues in order to cast their votes.
The government says that 40,000 police and soldiers have been deployed to prevent any possible protests escalating into violence. Shopkeepers in Tunis, meanwhile, said that people had been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case any unrest disrupted the supply of necessities.
Kamel Jendoubi, the country’s election chief, declared his independent ISIE polling commission “ready and confident” ahead of voting, while the European Union’s observer mission said there was “almost no chance of cheating or falsifying results”.
The European Union hailed Tunisia’s elections and vowed support for the new authorities, while David Cameron, the British prime minister, said: “As the first country in the region to put democracy to the test at the polling booth, Tunisia is once again leading the way.”
‘Victory for dignity’
The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young vegetable seller whose self-immolation last December set of the Tunisian revolt, said that the elections were a victory for dignity and freedom.
“Now I am happy that my son’s death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice,” Manoubia Bouazizi told the Reuters news agency. “I’m an optimist, I wish success for my country.”
Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri reports from Tunis
The election is the first for many Tunisians where they have had a range of parties to choose from.
“I am 39 years old and this is the first time I’m voting, so it’s about time,” Mehdi Barabdullah, a voter at a polling station in Tunis, told Al Jazeera.
“I’m very very happy for Tunisia. It’s a historical time for us. This piece of paper that I can show you [marking my registration to vote] is a very important paper for us. I am voting for the future of my daughter and I’m absolutely thrilled by it.”
“I feel like my heart is going to explode now, today and for the last few days,” said Waleed, a 35-year-old voter.
“I couldn’t sleep last night. This is something that I thought I would never experience in my life. Living under the regime of Ben Ali it was like … hell. Now I feel free. I am so proud of my fellow citizens,” he told Al Jazeera outside a polling station in Tunis.
Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, the founder of the PDP, a centre-left political party, came to vote in Tahrir Mhiri, La Marsa.
“This is a celebration of democracy,” he told Al Jazeera. “People are here to exercise their duties as citizens, and they are showing that they deserve the rights which they have been deprived of for decades.”
“There is a massive participation in the vote today,” he said, adding that votes tallied from overseas (on October 20-22) should not be taken as indicative of the final results.
Concerning the heckling of al-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi and his family after they cast their votes at El Menzah 6 this morning, Nejib Chebbi said it was “regrettable” that the leader of al-Nahda had been treated in this way.
“No matter what his political ideas might be, Mr. Ghannouchi is a Tunisian citizen who deserves respect. Today is not a day for protest,” he said.
Tunisia was the country that trigged what became known as the ‘Arab Spring’ after a month-long uprising forced then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia.
The protests quickly spread to neighbouring Egypt and Libya, along with countries in the Middle East such as Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
The country has been relatively calm in the weeks leading up to the election, with the exception of isolated protests against Nessma TV. With no other genuine democracies in the Arab world, many across the region are paying close attention to Tunisia’s democratic transition.
Sunday’s election for the constituent assembly is a litmus test for the depth of change the country has seen since January; and nerves were high on the eve of the vote.
Tunisian authorities arrested at least two well-known activists on Saturday evening, both of whom have been prominent critics of the interim government led by Beji Caid Essebsi.
|Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri reports from Tunis|
Bilal Dhaifallah, an independent Salafist who is against the elections and participated in protests in the Kasbah against the interim government, as well as against Nessma TV, was arrested briefly on Saturday evening.
Dhaifallah told Al Jazeera that police came to his house in Mejrine, a suburb to the east of Tunis, and held him for several hours, before releasing him.
They questioned him over his Facebook profile photo, which shows him in Libya holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle, he said.
“They searched my house looking for weapons and went through my computer, but they didn’t find anything,” he said, adding that the photo was just a souvenir and he had never brought weapons into Tunisia.
Fruits of the revolution
In a separate incident, police clamped down on a sit-in outside the Kasbah, near government offices, by young men who had been shot by security forces during the uprising, demanding that the government help them with basic healthcare.
Some Tunisians who braved bullets while fighting to end Ben Ali’s presidency, now feel that politicians have moved in to claim the fruits of the rebellion with little regard for the very people who paved the way for political change.
The group of around 20 staged a sit-in outside the Kasbah, near the office of Beji Caid Essebsi, the interim prime minister, beginning late morning on Saturday. At around 17:30 (local time), police forced them to leave.
They arrested Tahrir Hammami, a human rights activist and unionist who was there to support them.
In addition to the sit-in, seven young men have been on a hunger strike since Wednesday, protesting against what they say is the interim government’s failure to take care of their basic health needs.
Another 10 injured men travelled to Tunis from Kasserine and Thala to join them, but the government is continuing to refuse the injured men free hospitalisation.
All of them had been shot by security forces as they protested peacefully in the days immediately before Ben Ali was ousted.
On Friday, as political parties wrapped up their campaigns for Sunday’s vote, the men still nursing their wounds stepped up their protest, cutting off their consumption of water. They are staying in the newly-opened premise of Nawaat, the bloggers’ collective.
Leila el-Arbi, whose son Rachid el-Arbi is one of those taking part in the hunger strike, said politicians have ignored the plight of the injured.
Rachid has been paralysed from the waist down since he was shot on January 13 in his upper chest, and his body is covered in bedsores.
She will not be voting on Sunday. “Who would I vote for?” she said.
Hope for change
Tarek Dziri, from the town of Fahs, came to the capital to join the protest. Dziri, who has been confined to a wheelchair since receiving two bullets on January 12, agrees their needs have been overlooked by both the members of the interim government and the political parties running for election.
But unlike many of the other protesters, he will vote on Sunday, for an independent list not linked to any of the major parties.
“I hope Tunisia will change in the future,” he said.
Hamdi Abdesslam, a political activist who, like Hammai and Dhaifallah, is calling for a boycott of Sunday’s vote, said that the interim government was targeting its biggest critics ahead of the election.
“The arrests are targeted against young people and adults who believe that this supposedly democratic transition is only serving to allow the old regime to keep hold of its grip on power,” Abdesslam said.
Abdesslam said he had no doubt that the members of the interim government, many of whom have links to the former regime, will tamper with Sunday’s vote.
The activists are not alone in their fears.
Jendoubi, the head of the ISIE, warned the interim government on Saturday that it should not interfere in the vote.
Opposition figures including Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist party al-Nahda, and Moncef Marzouki, head of the Congress Party for the Republic, have also expressed fears of a “counter-revolution” in recent days.
Hannaoui Ben Othmen, a spokesperson for Zouheir Makhlouf, an independent candidate for the region of Nabel and well-known human rights activist, said that while a minority of counter-revolutionaries were seeking to undermine the election, everything was on track for Sunday’s ballot to be a success.
He believed that arrests had been made in a bid to ensure security so that the election would go smoothly, he said.
“I’m hopeful it will go well, because the military is there to ensure security and citizens are being prudent,” he said.