The country where a single act of protest sparked region-wide revolution is choosing its new leaders, and struggling to balance Islamist ideals with secular tradition.
Voters in the millions are casting ballots across Tunisia, where Reuters reports that turnout has been "huge." The election is the first genuine election since the revolt of 10 months ago, when a fruit peddler named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, triggering a wave of national unrest that drove President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali into exile.
For Tunisia, and presumably for the other nations that followed its lead and unseated longtime dictators, a simple but troublesome question looms: Now what?
The likely winners in today's election will be moderate Islamist candidates, reports suggest, meaning a break from the relatively secular government that prevailed here. There is some nervousness about such a change, a fact that became clear during the day's voting.
Reuters followed Rachid Ghannouchi, of the "moderately Islamist" Ennhada party, to the polls.
"This is an historic day," he said, accompanied by his wife and daughter, both wearing Islamic headscarves, or hijabs. "Tunisia was born today. The Arab Spring was born today."
As he emerged from the polling station, about a dozen people shouted at him: "Degage," French for "Go away," and "You are a terrorist and an assassin! Go back to London!."
Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in exile in Britain, has associated his party with the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. He has said he will not try to impose Muslim values on society.
The country's modernist traditions could be threatened, some said, though The New York Times also found voters who were most excited simply to exercise their rights for the first time: "Fatima Toumi, 52, an illiterate housewife, said, beaming with pride, that she had done her civic duty but did not know which party’s box she had checked. 'Whatever I pick doesn’t matter,” she said. “I hope it will improve the situation of Tunisia’s youth.'"
In an editorial for Al Jazeera, Larbi Sadiki, a lecturer on the Middle East from the University of Exeter, argued that Tunisia would seek, and find a balance between its religious traditions and those of secular statehood and influence from Europe, much as Turkey has.
Tunisians champion syncretism, and this is really the crux of Tunisia's "political culture". They do not wish to ditch their Arab and Islamic heritage. Nor do they wish to detach from the brighter spots of reformist politics in their history. French and European inputs into the mix of their culture are now deep-rooted and appreciated.
But there will be pressure to move in a stricter direction, The Times reported. Some who turned out to vote for Ennhada see as a model not Turkey, with its attempts to engage with Europe and the West, but Saudi Arabia.
His friend Lotfi Nasri, 35, disagreed, arguing that Ennahda should seek to ban alcohol sales and require women to wear an Islamic head scarf, on a model closer to the one used in Saudi Arabia. If Ennahda wins power, he said, “it will be more of an Islamic country.” Others complained that Tunisia’s liberal parties supported its current decriminalization of prostitution or said they expected Ennahda to crack down on profanity or blasphemy in the popular culture.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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