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Dec. 22 (GIN) – Tunisians, the first people to launch an “Arab Spring” revolution that ousted a despot, returned to power a member of the ousted regime. They cast ballots on Sunday in the nation’s first free presidential poll – and the outcome surprised many.

Veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi of the secular Call for Tunisia (“Nidaa Tounes”) party received 55% of the vote in Sunday’s run-off. His opponent, Moncef Marzouki, managed to win only 44% of the vote. Marzouki, 67, a former exile, served as interim president since Ben Ali left the country in 2011 and was popular in the conservative, poorer south. He was seen as deferential to the Ennahda Islamist party. After briefly contesting the poll results, he conceded defeat and congratulated Essebsi on Facebook.

The 88 year old Essebsi served under the one-party rule of Pres. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who fled the country in January 2011 after 23 years of dictatorial rule.

"I dedicate my victory to the martyrs of Tunisia,” Essebsi said on a TV interview. “I thank Marzouki, and now we should work together without excluding anyone.”

The vote seemed to send a message that moderate-minded Tunisians did not want a religious regime along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Ennahda party, an Islamist group which held power briefly on the abdication of Pres. Ben Ali, was disappointed with the election results but congratulated Essebsi on his victory and pledged to work with him.

Soon after polls closed on Sunday night, jubilant supporters took to the streets of the capital in celebration, chanting "Beji President!"

But in the southern city of Hamma, police fired teargas to disperse hundreds of youths who burned tires and blocked streets to demonstrate against Essebsi.

Voting was largely pronounced free and fair with a turnout rate of 60.11 percent, less than the nearly 70 percent in the previous round and legislative elections in October.

So far, Tunisia has managed to exemplify how democracy works if one compares it to Egypt, Libya or Syria, writes a reporter with Al Jazeera news. “So while there are concerns, there is still some hope.”

It is the first time Tunisians have been able to vote freely for their president since independence from France in 1956. w/pix of supporter of candidate B. Essebsi

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