Tunisia's first free elections

The lines of voters in the Arab spring's first election, in Tunis, stretch for blocks. (Trudy Rubin / Staff)

Tunis. The lines for the first free Tunisian elections - and the first elections held since the  Arab revolts began, stretched for blocks (and by nightfall, election officials were saying 90% of eligible voters had cast ballots.) People were patient and orderly, and eager to talk.

With its educated population, small size, and large middle class Tunisia has a chance to become the first real Arab democracy, and a role model for other Arab countries. The population here is an amazing Mediteranean mosaic,of cultures, with faces that range from blonde to olive to dark brown. Some women wear short sleeves, many do not cover their heads, and almost all seem to work, even ladies who are heavily covered.

The educational level is clearly high. Despite a confusing election scheme, with more than 60 parties and many independent lists, everyone with whom I spoke said they were hopeful.  But the thread that ran through most conversations was the divide between those who will vote for the Islamist party Al-Nahda and those who won’t.

The issue seemed to boil down to one of trust. Many who supported Al-Nahda, including several women, argued that a religious party was needed to combat declining morals and corruption. Others told me that Al-Nahda deserved a chance because its followers had suffered terrible repression under the previous regime. One woman said that, given the global economic crisis, Tunisia needed Islamic banks.

But none of the dozen women who told me they’d vote for Al-Nahda believed it would, or could, prevent women from working. They all were quite adamant on this point.  I hope they are correct, although they would do well to be wary.

Other women, and men, I met, who were voting for centrist and center-right parties were much more nervous about how Al-Nahda might try to change the country.

However, I felt a level of self-confidence here that is lacking in places like Iraq or Egypt – a belief that Tunisian institutions, which kept functioning even during the revolution, would help pull the country through. I was repeatedly told that Tunisians reject extremes, and wouldn’t tolerate a party that infringed on their new freedoms.

I hope they are right.