AUDIE CORNISH, host: Tunisians are voting today 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 autocratic leaders. Analysts say what happens in Tunisia could be key in whether democracy is to take root across the rest of the Arab world.
Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from the capital, Tunis.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: There were crowds out on the sunny streets of Tunis today and an excitement in the air. Tunisians have lived under one-party, one-man rule since the country won its independence from France in 1956. Forty-two-year-old Ramsey Bislema is standing in line at a polling station with a group of men. He says it's the first time for all of them.
RAMSEY BISLEMA: It's my first time. I am 40 and the first time that I vote. Some good feeling and something is new for us. We didn't feel it before, the freedom and the real democracy.
BEARDSLEY: In January, Tunisia became the first Arab nation to overthrow its dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. 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 out their message in Tunisia's first free campaign.
For one clever, get-out-the-vote video, activists hung a six-story portrait of the former dictator on a city wall overnight. A crowd soon gathers, cars and buses stop, people become angry and then begin to tear the poster down.
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BEARDSLEY: Behind Ben Ali is an election banner that reads: Beware, dictatorship can return. Vote on October 23rd. But with more than 100 parties and thousands of candidates to choose from, voting is not so easy for some.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: In a working class neighborhood of Tunis, a group of middle-aged men who grew up here together, sits outside their usual cafe. Before, they said they could only talk about football. Now they can't stop arguing about politics.
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BEARDSLEY: Mohammed Khelifa says it's all a bit too stressful.
MOHAMMED KHELIFA: (Through Translator) Some of us don't know who to choose, and it's a mystery who's going to get the most votes. Before, we always knew who would win and I guess we kind of got used to that.
(Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Tunisians are electing a 217-seat assembly that will draft a new constitution and choose a president. One of the biggest political debates at cafes and around dinner tables is how much support the Islamist party, Ennahda, will get.
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BEARDSLEY: Thousands of people showed up at a campaign rally for Ennahda on Friday. Under dictator Ben Ali Islamists, Islamists were persecuted and jailed. Many fled into exile. Today, Ennahda 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 society is fearful of too much religious influence in the new Tunisia.
FARES MABROUK: This is the first time an Arab country tried to build a new democracy – an Arab democracy.
BEARDSLEY: That's political analyst Fares Mabrouk. He says it's normal for religious parties to be part of Tunisia's democracy. The biggest secular movement, 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.
MABROUK: I think the Arab world needs a successful transition to democracy. And I think that Tunisia is the best candidate for that. We have here the condition for this transformation to succeed. So we need to succeed.
BEARDSLEY: Mabrouk says there is no other choice, not only for Tunisia, but for the rest of the Arab world, as well.
For NPR news, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis.
CORNISH: You're listening to NPR News.
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