Huge turnout in Tunisia's Arab Spring election

Sun Oct 23, 2011 6:18pm EDT
 
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By Tarek Amara and Christian Lowe

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisians turned out in huge numbers to vote in the country's first free election on Sunday, 10 months after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a protest that started the Arab Spring uprisings.

The leader of an Islamist party predicted to win the biggest share of the vote was heckled outside a polling station by people shouting "terrorist", highlighting tensions between Islamists and secularists being felt across the Arab world.

The suicide of vegetable peddler Bouazizi, prompted by despair over poverty and government repression, provoked mass protests which forced President Zine al-Abidine to flee Tunisia. This in turn inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderately Islamist Ennahda party, 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, both wearing Islamic headscarves, or hijabs. "Tunisia was born today. The Arab Spring was born today."

As he emerged from the polling station, about a dozen people shouted at him: "Degage", French for "Go away", and "You are a terrorist and an assassin! Go back to London!"

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.

In Tunisia, ideas about Islam, and restrictions on things like alcohol, are more relaxed than in many Arab countries.   Continued...