Tunisians Vote In Free Elections

Tunisians voted Sunday in their country's first free elections — the culmination of a popular uprising that ousted President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and touched off the wave of Arab Spring uprisings. Washington Post reporter Leila Fadel offers her insight from the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

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GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

RAZ: The sounds of voters at the polling stations in Tunisia today. Ten months ago, the people of Tunisia set in motion a wave of protests that spread across the Arab world, the so-called Arab Spring. Tunisians ousted their leader, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. And today's vote will elect a new assembly that will be charged with writing a new constitution for Tunisia.

Leila Fadel covers the region for The Washington Post, and she joins me from Tunis. And, Leila, you visited districts across Tunis today. What was the general feeling at those polling stations?

LEILA FADEL: I think the general feeling was giddiness - really a truly historic moment for Tunisians and for the Arab world. They started the Arab revolts that have spread across the region against largely autocratic regime, and now they're taking that next step for the first time and showing the Arab world whether or not free and fair elections are possible here.

RAZ: I mean, the issues 10 months ago were not just about overthrowing an autocrat, but it was also about jobs, it was about the economy, it was about many other things, right?

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, people rose up because they were unemployed. They saw that the people connected to these governments (unintelligible) while the rest lived in poverty, joblessness. And even if they had a degree, there is no opportunity. And 10 months later, not much of that has actually changed. And some Tunisians, I would say a minority, decided not to vote because they weren't sure that change could happen. But others said this is the step that will bring them closer to that ultimate goal.

RAZ: Now, Leila, I understand turnout has been very high today. We won't have preliminary results for at least a day or so. Something like 110 political parties are running, but there is one moderate Islamist party that is favored to take most of the seats in the assembly, right?

FADEL: Yes. (Unintelligible) front-runner for the constituent assembly is an organization called the Nahda, which was banned, and many of their members were arrested and tortured here in Tunisia under Ben Ali's regime. Many people that we've talked to favored them because of what they see as a social justice platform, but others also favored them because they see Nahda as a group that will preserve the Arab and Islamic identity of Tunisia while continuing to protect its somewhat modern veneer.

RAZ: Leila Fadel, Tunisia, of course, is the first country of the Arab Spring to hold a democratic election. You cover the region for The Washington Post. Talk about what's at stake for the rest of the Arab world today.

FADEL: Well, I think as everybody watches the Tunisian elections, they are looking at what type of recipe, if you will, will be set for the elections to come. Next month, Egyptians will go to the polls. And in eight months, after this declaration of liberation in Libya, they will also go to the polls. So they're looking at Tunisia (unintelligible), can we have a free and fair election? Can we have that next step after the revolution that actually brings us a democratic government that we've been vying for?

RAZ: That's Washington Post reporter Leila Fadel. We reached her in Tunis. Leila, thank you so much.

FADEL: Thank you for having me.

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