Paul Schemm, Associated Press
TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisians waited in lines for hours under the sun to vote in the nation's first truly free elections, the culmination of a popular uprising that set off similar rebellions across the Middle East.
Voters — women with headscarves and without, former political prisoners, young people whose Facebook posts helped fuel the revolution in the North African country — are electing a 217-seat assembly that will appoint a new government and then write a new constitution.
The party expected to come out on top is the moderate Islamic movement Ennahda, whose victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.
Voters are definitively turning the page on the 23-year presidency of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown by a monthlong uprising on Jan. 14 stirred by anger at unemployment, corruption and repression.
Halfway through election day officials were exulting that turnout was high and had already exceeded expectations, without giving any exact figures. Soldiers were helping keep order, though no problems were reported in the first part of the day.
The unexpected revolution in this quiet Mediterranean country — cherished by European tourists for its sandy beaches and desert oases — set off a series of similar uprisings against entrenched leaders, an event now being called the Arab Spring.
If Tunisia's elections produce an effective new government they will serve as an inspiration to pro-democracy advocates across the region, including in next-door Libya, where longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was killed last week by rebel forces.
"The old elections were fraudulent and this one is for our children and grandchildren so that even if I soon die, I will be happy and content," said Tayyib Awishi, 83, dressed in a crisp white robe and skull cap, in a crowded polling station in the working class Tunis suburb of Hay al-Tadammon.
At a nearby station in the same neighborhood, former political prisoner Touhami Sakouhi said he was ready to wait in line all day.
"It's a historic day, a moment of joy and celebration. Even if I have to stand in line 24 hours, I would not give up the chance to savor this air of freedom," he said.
In the more affluent Tunis suburb of al-Aouina, 18-year-old language student and former protester Zeinab Souayah said, "I'm going to grow up and think back on these days and tell my children about them."
"It feels great, it's awesome," she added, in English.
The ballot is an extra-large piece of paper bearing the names and symbols of the parties fielding a candidate in each district. The symbols are meant to aid the illiterate, estimated at about 25 percent of the population in a country with one of the most educated populations in the region.
It's a cacophony of choice in a country effectively under one-party rule since independence from France in 1956, and where the now-popular Islamist party Ennahda was long banned.
Retired engineer Bahri Mohamed Lebid, 73, said he voted "for my religion," a sentiment common among Ennahda supporters. He described the last time he tried to vote, in 1974, when he said polling officers forced him to cast a ballot for the ruling party despite his objections.
Others expressed concern that despite its moderate public line, Ennahda could reverse some of Tunisia's progressive legislation for women if the party gains power.
"I am looking for someone to protect the place of women in Tunisia," said 34-year-old Amina Helmi, her hair free of the headscarves that some Tunisian women wear. She said she voted for the center-left PDP party, the strongest legal opposition movement under Ben Ali. She said she was "afraid" of Ennahda.
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