As Mondher Kouki waited to vote in the first free elections since political 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.
Kouki and dozens of his neighbors stood in the sun in a Tunis slum to cast ballots for an assembly to write Tunisia’s new constitution. They all remembered the thrilling days 10 months ago when street protests here led to the toppling of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali — and inspired so-called Arab Spring upheavals in Muslim states across North Africa and the Middle East.
On Sunday, up to 90% of eligible Tunisian voters were estimated to have cast ballots in a race of more than 100 parties that has sparked a sense of political, as well as emotional, catharsis. Preliminary results are expected Monday.
But the euphoria of revolt, in a scenario repeated in Egypt and Libya, has been largely subsumed by the burden of living in a nation long plundered by an autocrat. Kouki unfolded a $102 monthly electricity bill. His friends, who had their own bills with them, 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 said. “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.”
Across much of the capital, car horns blew and flags rippled as Tunisians were once again at the center of the region’s political ferment. The selection of a constituent assembly, which has turned into a battle between Islamists and secularists, is the clearest 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.”
The nation’s first constitution was adopted in 1959, three years after Tunisia gained independence from France. But that era’s glimmer of democracy faded amid the whims of Ben Ali and ensuing public anger that led to this year’s rebellion.
“There’s an inner force now guiding Tunisians,” Soussi Lotfi, the rip in his shoe sewn with a cobbler’s thread, as he waited to vote. “We won’t be told what to do anymore. We’ll protest and there will never be another dictator. We are ready for change.”
Many are predicting that will come from the moderate Islamist party, Nahda, which is poised to win as much as 35% of the constituent assembly’s seats. Secularists, many of whom support the Progressive Democratic Party, fear such an outcome will tip the country closer to a theocracy and fail to address deepening economic problems and a disillusioned youth.
It was Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit seller frustrated over lack of opportunity, who touched off Tunisia’s revolt in December when he committed suicide by setting himself on fire. His mother, Manoubia Bouazizi, told Reuters on Sunday that the elections were a “victory for my son who died defending dignity and liberty.... I hope the people who are going to govern will be able to keep this message in mind.”
That message, and a belief that for the first time their votes will matter, left Tunisians, including bloggers, former political prisoners and ultraconservative clerics, standing in orderly lines for hours outside polling stations.
“It’s like a national celebration today,” Ben Cheikh Larbi Hamid, an optometrist and official election observer said, after he voted in a wealthy neighborhood of whitewashed buildings and blue shutters along the sea. “For many people in their 50s and 60s, including me, this is the first time we’ve voted. There was no motivation under Ben Ali [who won 89% of the vote in 2009]. The outcome was already known.”
He added: “Most Tunisians have a more moderate point of view than the Islamists. We are an Arab country, but we have developed a civil society stretching back to the 1940s. There will always be a sentiment to fight the Islamists or any extremists whether they be on the left or the right.”
There was little talk of political ideology or civil society in Kouki’s poor neighborhood. Mothers wearing hijabs, or head scarfs, complained of inflation, shrinking family budgets and lack of social services. Old men grimaced and young men worried about jobs. Trash that hadn’t been picked up for weeks smoldered in an empty lot.
“Our bills are too expensive and even when we can pay the electric bill, the lights still don’t come on,” said Awatif Hannachi, who waited in the women’s line threading toward the polling station. “I hope the man who runs the country will be a good man.”
That sentiment was echoed by other women, who, after decades of living under Ben Ali, had defined their notion of government as the rule of a single man. They weren’t exactly knowledgeable about the role of a constituent assembly and an emerging democracy; their support was for the Islamist party, Nahda.
“Politically things may have improved since the revolution, but it’s still a living hell here,” said Houssine Youssfi, a driver. “Food. Sugar. Utilities. They’re all higher than when Ben Ali was in charge.”
He glanced at his neighbors.
“I will not vote,” he said. “Nothing will change.”
Dressed in a check blazer, his eyes agitated, Kouki edged forward in the voting line.
“I don’t really think this election will make my life better,” he said, holding up a paper. “I just got this electric bill yesterday.”