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Tunisia Takes A Giant Step Forward

In this Jan. 19, 2011 file photo youths gather below the portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, central Tunisia. Bouazizi's death gave rise to a protest movement that spread across the Middle East.(AP Photo/Salah Habibi)

On October 23, Tunisians went to the polls to vote in their country's first ever democratic elections.

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor of vegetables in the city of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire on December 17 last year to protest police mistreatment and the humiliation of his person, he inspired a protest: a movement, fueled by anger over unemployment, corruption, abuse of power and political repression that swelled into a nationwide uprising and inspired similar movements in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The death of Mohamed Bouazizi gave birth to the Arab Spring.

On October 23, just ten months after the first ripples of unrest in Tunisia signaled the beginning of the end for the 23 year rule of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians went to the polls to vote in their country's first ever democratic elections. Over 10,000 local and 500 international observers visited polling stations throughout the country, including delegations from the OSCE, the European Union and the Carter Center.

Over 70 percent of Tunisia's 4.1 million registered voters participated in the election for a 217-seat Constituent Assembly that will write Tunisia's new constitution, that set of fundamental principles and rules by which the country will be governed -- the all-important instructions for the building of Tunisia's new future. The Assembly will also have the authority to appoint a new interim government.

"Less than a year after they inspired the world, the Tunisian people took an important step forward," said U.S. President Barack Obama. "I congratulate the millions of Tunisians who voted in the first democratic elections to take place in the country that changed the course of history and began the Arab Spring.

"Just as so many Tunisian citizens protested peacefully in streets and squares to claim their rights. . . . they stood in lines and cast their votes to determine their own future. Now, Tunisia begins the hard work of forming an interim government, drafting a new Constitution, and charting a democratic course that meets the aspirations of all Tunisians," he said.

"The United States reaffirms its commitment to the Tunisian people as they move toward a democratic future that offers dignity, justice, freedom of expression, and greater economic opportunity for all."