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Results Being Tallied In Tunisia's Presidential Election

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Almost exactly four years ago, the Arab Spring was born in protests in Tunisia. Yesterday, that North African country chose its first democratically elected president. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from the capital, Tunis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Outside the headquarters of candidate Beji Caid Essebsi in an upscale suburb of Tunis, hundreds of people gathered Sunday night, waving the red and white Tunisian flag and pictures of the elderly man who may soon be president. Official results haven't been released, but Essebsi's party called on its supporters to celebrate what they assumed is his victory. And they did...

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

FADEL: With fireworks, songs and screams of joy. In this affluent, mostly French-speaking crowd, Dr. Aida Masmoudi, in a turtleneck and a string of pearls, could barely speak. She was too excited.

AIDA MASMOUDI: (Speaking French).

FADEL: She says, we're dying from happiness. Essebsi loves Tunisia, he will unite Tunisia. It's like giving birth; we're so relieved. Essebsi is a French-educated lawyer who held senior positions in the previous regimes. Many who voted for him say they did it for stability. If he wins, his party will control both the parliament and the presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

FADEL: In a less affluent neighborhood across town, a different crowd gathered outside the headquarters of Essebsi's opponent, Moncef Marzouki. He's been serving as interim president for the last three years but was a dissident under the old regime. His supporters say he will uphold the goals of the revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

FADEL: The crowd also sang and chanted. But the mood was somber. Campaign volunteers wept on the sidelines of the crowd.

HANAN MENJLI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: That's Hanan Menjli. She says, I'm crying because we worked so hard, and the results so far show Essebsi is winning. He's a symbol of the old regime. We had a revolution to get away from people like him, and now this guy is winning. The so-called Arab Spring began in Tunisia four years ago. And this vote is historic. Tunisians chose a new parliament earlier this year. And this vote will mark the first peaceful transfer of power between heads of state born from the wave of revolts in 2011 throughout the region. The campaign was tense. Essebsi accused Marzouki of being an extremist. And Marzouki's campaign said Essebsi would bring back the old authoritarian order.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEJI CAID ESSEBSI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: But when Essebsi appeared on state television last night, there was no mudslinging. He said working together will be the future of Tunisia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

FADEL: Back at Marzouki's headquarters, the crowd went wild when he appeared on the balcony above.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

FADEL: Marzouki did not concede defeat but told the crowd, no matter what, Tunisia won today. You won. Democracy and freedom won. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tunis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.