TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisians expressed tentative hope for the future as they lined up Sunday to choose their first five-year parliament since they overthrew their dictator in the 2011 revolution that kicked off the Arab Spring.
The past three and a half years have been marked by political turmoil, terrorist attacks and a faltering economy which has brought disillusionment to many over the democratic process, even though Tunisia is widely seen as the country that has the best chance for democracy in the Arab world.
Many polling stations reported high turnouts and long lines early in the day.
"We are proud to vote. It's our duty as citizens and I am optimistic," said Zeinab Turabi, a lawyer in the affluent Tunis neighborhood of Soukra. "If you don't vote, you'll get Libya," she added, referring to the neighboring country which has been taken hostage by violent militias since the overthrew of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
At polling stations in the 27 districts across Tunisia, citizens have a bewildering array of candidates laid out on enormous ballots, though the Islamist Ennahda Party in particular is expected to do well.
Many are also expected to vote for the Nida Tunis (Tunisia's Call) party which has been presenting itself as the only force strong enough to stand up to the Islamists.
"I am here to vote for democracy and for those who can confront Ennahda, for a modern Tunisia and to keep them from ruling alone," said Lahimer Salem, a businessman. "They (the Islamists) are part of the country, but they are not the only ones."
The 5.2 million registered voters are choosing a 217-seat parliament and the largest party will get the right to form a government. Presidential elections are in November.
There had been fears that terrorists might disrupt the elections and on Friday, police stormed a house in the Tunis suburb of Oued Ellil after a 24-hour standoff, killing five women and a man, which they described as "terrorists."
"I thought people would be intimidated by Oued Ellil, but Tunisian are very determined and they don't let threats stop them," said 65-year-old Said Bessaoud Chihi, who wore a headscarf and said she was voting to make sure women kept their rights in the face of the Islamists.
The Ennahda Party did well immediately after the revolution, though many criticized the Islamists' turbulent two years in power and they later stepped aside in favor of a transition government ahead of elections.
In the Tunis neighborhood of Yasmina, like many lower income areas, voters chose to separate themselves into male and female lines while waiting to vote, officials said.
"We wanted this separation because it is not logical for men and women to be mixed in the same line, we must respect each other," said one voter, Mohammed Saleh Mellouli. He cited the economy as his main concern in the election.
Independent monitoring groups had reported a number of irregularities by midday, citing cases of voting stations opening late because materials hadn't arrived and in several places across the country, party activists encouraging people to vote for their party inside polling stations or actually paying for votes.
In downtown Tunis, there were plenty of young men slouched in cafes without the telltale ink mark on their finger indicating they had voted.
U.S. ambassador Jacob Walles visited several polling stations in the morning. At one station a few people shouted slogans at him accusing the United States and Qatar of interfering in the country and telling him to leave.
The embassy confirmed a few people shouted "degage" (get out) but said it did not affect the ambassador's visit.