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Sun 23 Oct 2011 02:43 PM

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Tunisians queue for first ‘Arab Spring’ election

Eyes of Arab world are on first election to take place since unrest swept the region

Tunisians queue for first ‘Arab Spring’ election
Tunisians wait in a line on October 23, 2011, to cast their vote at a polling station in Tunis

Tunisian voters stood in long queues on Sunday, seizing the
opportunity to take part in the first election of the "Arab Spring"
that was expected to hand the biggest share of power to an Islamist party.

The election, the first free vote in Tunisia's history, will
set a standard for other Arab countries where uprisings this year against
poverty and repression have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle
East.

Tunisia set the ‘Arab Spring’ in motion 10 months ago, when
mass protests ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired revolts in
Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderately Islamist Ennahda
party which is likely to win the biggest share of the vote, took his place in
the queue outside a polling station in the El Menzah 6 district of the capital.

"This is an historic day," he said, accompanied by
his wife and daughter, who were both wearing hijabs, or Islamic headscarves.
"Tunisia was born today. The Arab Spring was born today."

This level of voter interest was never seen during Ben Ali's
rule, when only a trickle of people turned out for elections because they knew
the result was pre-determined.

Noureddine, a young man outside a polling station in the
upmarket La Marsa district of Tunis, said: "This is a real moment of
pride, it's an historic day. I am full of emotion to see Tunisia living through
a day like this. Even in my dreams I did not imagine people would come like
this to vote."

Sunday's vote is for an assembly that will draft a new
constitution to replace the one Ben Ali manipulated to entrench his power. It
will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new president
and parliament.

Islamist leader 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.

But the party's rise is worrying Tunisia's secularists who
believe their country's liberal, modernist traditions are now under threat.

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Most forecasts are that Ennahda will not have enough seats
for a majority in the assembly, forcing it to seek a coalition which will
dilute the Islamist influence.

The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which is leading the
challenge to Ennahda dominance, has campaigned on a platform of protecting
Tunisia's secular values.

Najib Chebbi, a former anti-Ben Ali dissident and PDP
leader, stood in the queue outside a polling station in the Al Marsa district,
chatting to other voters.

"I will wait my turn, even if it takes all day. That is
democracy," he told Reuters. "This is Tunisia's happiest day. It is a
celebration for democracy. Today Tunisia has joined the ranks of the advanced countries.

"It is very moving to see all these people who are
waiting their turn to vote," he said.

Ennahda has been at pains to assuage the concerns of
secularists and Western powers, fielding several women candidates including one
who does not wear the hijab and promising not to undermine women's freedoms.

But fundamentalist Salafist Islamists have attacked a cinema
and a TV station in recent months over artistic material deemed blasphemous.
Ennahda says they have nothing to do with them, but liberals do not believe
them.

Observers says Ennahda's long-term intentions are not clear.
Its election campaign has avoided offering policy details that mark it out as much
different from its rivals.

At a final election rally on Friday, Suad Abdel-Rahim, the
female candidate who does not wear a veil, said Ennahda would protect women's
equality.

But illustrating the party's contradictions, many books on
sale on the fringes of the rally were by Salafist writers who believe women
should be segregated from men in public and that elections are un-Islamic.

An Ennahda victory would be the first such success in the
Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991
election in Algeria, Tunisia's neighbour. The army annulled the result,
provoking years of conflict.

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Ennahda's fortunes could have a bearing on Egyptian
elections set for next month in which the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological
ally, also hopes to emerge strongest.

Libya hopes to hold elections next year after a protest
movement that transformed into an armed rebellion managed, with NATO backing,
to oust Muammar Gaddafi. Unresolved violent conflict continues in Syria and
Yemen, and many other governments have begun reforms to avoid civil unrest.

With so much at stake in Tunisia, there are concerns that
even the smallest doubt over the legitimacy of the vote could bring supporters
of rival parties onto the streets.

The government says 40,000 police and soldiers are being
deployed to prevent any protests escalating into violence. Shopkeepers say
people have been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case unrest disrupts
supplies.