Tunis: Tunisia's first true multiparty elections is underway with thousands casting their ballots with a mixture of pride, hope and trepidation minutes after the polling stations opened throughout the country at 7 am local time.
In Monastir, a coastal resort, a long lineup of early voters snaked the corridor of a high school, one of several voting locales in the city, the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president, under the watchful eyes of four armed servicemen and servicewomen from the Tunisian army.
Inside the voting hall, two women observers were taking notes as each voter was carefully checked by the panel overseeing the elections before being allowed to dip his or her finger in the blue ink to help foil any possible attempt to rig the elections.
Representatives from the various parties were also monitoring the progress of the voting process.
It was a radical change from the times when elections in Tunisia were a carefully orchestrated affair and results were known before the process started.
The elections to choose the 217 members of the constituent assembly who will write the country's new constitution is the first major step towards full constitutional legitimacy in Tunisia after the downfall of its former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14.
"We feel so vindicated after so many years of frustration," Nizar said not far from the elections locale. "The West has always thought that Arabs cannot and will not appreciate democracy or connect with any form of true elections. Today, we are proving them and every other skeptical person that they are wrong," he said with a wide grin on his elated face. Ennahdha, the moderate Islamist party, has been given as a clear winner, but officials said that everybody will have to wait until the final results are announced.
Online reports that Ennahdha was leading in the vote count of the expatriates' ballots was on Saturday evening denied by the commission overseeing the elections as "baseless allegations."
Tunisians living abroad voted on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, ahead of the homeland, to elect 18 representatives at the constituent assembly.
The final results are expected late on Monday.