Tunisians vote in first free elections since ‘Arab Spring’


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REPORTING FROM TUNIS, TUNISIA — As Mondher Kouki waited to vote Sunday in the first free elections since uprisings began sweeping the Arab world in January, he complained about the cost of electricity, the dubious promises of politicians and the prospect that he wouldn’t be able to afford a sheep to slaughter for an upcoming holy festival.

He and dozens of his neighbors stood in the sun in a Tunis slum to cast ballots for an assembly to write the country’s new constitution. They all remembered the thrilling days of 10 months ago when street protests that began in Tunisia resulted in the toppling of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali — and inspired a series of ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.


But the euphoria of revolt, as in other Arab countries, has been subsumed by the burden of living in nations spoiled by autocrats. Kouki unfolded his $102 electricity bill. His friends, who had their own bills, bit their lips and shook their heads. How does a shipping port clerk with two children, a wife and a mother-in-law to feed come up with that kind of money?

‘Am I going to buy a sheep for Eid or pay this bill?’ he asked. ‘I’ll borrow money or take away from my children’s education. I thought when Ben Ali was forced from power things would get better. Yet it’s the same.’

But across much of the capital, car horns blew and flags rippled as Tunisians were once again at the center of the protest movement. The choosing of a constituent assembly, which has turned into a battle between Islamists and secularists, is a sign that fresh voices and political powers are creating a new nation out of Ben Ali’s defeated police state.

‘I hope the success of this election is a sign to the rest of the Arab world,’ said Mohamed Ghazlani, who waited to vote at a school in another neighborhood. ‘I want our new government to be a mosaic of parties. No one faction should dominate, otherwise we’ll return to the old ways of the ruling party.’

About 70% of voters cast ballots in a elections, in which more than 100 political parties participated. Preliminary results are expected Monday.


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— Jeffrey Fleishman