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Tunisian elections set to empower Islamists. How moderate will they be?

Tunisian elections: Islamist party Nahda is set to do well in today's historic election in Tunisia, which will be a litmus test for the Arab Spring.

Tunisian elections: A voter casts his ballot at a polling station during in Tunis, Sunday. The Islamist party Nahda is set to do well in the historic Tunisian elections.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

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Two opposing forces have claimed to speak for the Tunisian people in the run-up to the country’s first free elections for a constituent assembly today.

Last week, thousands of angry salafists -- radical Muslims -- marched through the streets of the capital, Tunis, with many in the crowd shouting: "The people want an Islamic state."

A few days later, a smaller, better-dressed crowd of perhaps 2,000 people walked down Mohamed V boulevard in Tunis shouting: "The people want a civic state."

Both slogans were a play of words on "the people want the fall of the regime," which became the slogan of the Tunisian revolution and then a rallying cry for protesters across the Arab world.

Tunisia’s elections, more than nine months after the country toppled its dictator of 23 years, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, are a litmus test for the Arab Spring.

Tunisia was the first Arab country to topple its dictator, and it is now also the first to put democracy into practice.

“Tunisia is holding what looks so far like the first free democratic elections in the Arab world, not counting Iraq where elections were held only after a US invasion,” says Issandr Al-Amrani, a Moroccan-American political analyst who runs the well-respected website The Arabist from Cairo and is in Tunis for today's vote.

“But Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world, so it remains to be seen what effect free elections here will have on other Arab countries like Egypt”, he adds.


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