STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is also a landmark date in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began. Three years ago today, Tunisia's long-time ruler stepped down in the face of a popular uprising. His departure sparked both celebration and uncertainty. A nation that blended European, Arab and African cultures became a scene of contention where Islamists took a growing share of power. But unlike other countries in the Arab Spring, Tunisians seemed to be overcoming their religious/secular divide.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in the capital, Tunis, on the Mediterranean coast.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Sixty-two-year-old Mounir Khelifa is dining with his friends at a fashionable restaurant on the beach. Khelifa is part of Tunisia's significant secular population. Most live on the coast and look across the Mediterranean toward Europe. Khelifa is a literature professor. He is Muslim but he doesn't want religion to play a role in Tunisia's new democratic government.

MOUNIR KHELIFA: OK, let's raise a glass. Here's to you.

BEARDSLEY: Before the fall of the dictator in 2011, when overt religion was discouraged, Tunisians didn't fully know each other's beliefs. Khelifa and his friends were convinced that the majority of Tunisia's 11 million people were secular-minded like they were. When the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won 42 percent of the seats in an elected constituent assembly in 2011, they were stunned. Khelifa says he and other secular Tunisians don't trust the Islamists.

KHELIFA: The government that is dominated by the moderate Islamists was getting its hands on all the apparatus of the state and we feared that they would move towards an authoritarian, bureaucratic system of government.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

BEARDSLEY: The call to prayer rings out five times a day over Tunis. Only the most pious go to the mosque at 6:30 in the morning. Forty-three year old Nabil Rezgui is one of them.

NABIL REZGUI: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Afterwards, Rezgui heads to work as he manager of a sports apparel store. Rezgui voted for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda.

REZGUI: (Through interpreter) I wanted a democratic government that was also Islamist. I want both. The party had a lot of good ideas, but I admit they made some mistakes.

BEARDSLEY: The inexperienced party was inept at governing. The economy got worse and people say the trash doesn't even get picked up. And the Islamist-led government was accused of letting radical Salifis wreak havoc. It was the last straw in 2013, when two secular politicians were gunned down in broad daylight, allegedly by Salafis.

After the second assassination, women, students, trade unions protested for weeks demanding that the Islamist-led government step down. Meanwhile, the military coup in Egypt ousting an Islamist party there sent shivers through Ennahda. They agreed to sit down with the secular opposition to draft the country's constitution.

Attia Fattoum is an Islamist member of Tunisia's elected assembly. She says the party did right to compromise.

ATTIA FATTOUM: (Through interpreter) There's a mix of everyone in Tunisia, and it's not because we have a religious movement now or the secular people are going to go away. We've got to live together and respect each other.

BEARDSLEY: Ennahda has also agreed to step aside for a nonpolitical caretaker government and new elections this year. That process has already started. People here can watch their lawmakers write the constitution on the Tunisian equivalent of C-SPAN. There have been hard fought battles, like the one to enshrine equality between men and women.

When Article 45 on equality did pass, assembly members rose to their feet to sing the national anthem. Though each side is hardly getting everything it wants, it's this constitution, a roadmap for the future, that reassures both Rezgui in his sport apparel shop and Khelifa in his restaurant.

KHELIFA: I feel hopeful and optimistic, both that secularists and Islamists and activists from civil society all got together and worked out a solution which is possibly not a perfect one, but a workable one.

BEARDSLEY: As Tunisians celebrate their anniversary today, many say that for the first time since the revolution, they feel confident they're building a democracy. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis.

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