by Austin Bay
February 1, 2005
The Roman god Janus had two faces -- one looking forward, the
other gazing backward. He was the lord of beginnings, and as the deity of
gates and doors had a say in entrances and exits. The literati make a poetic
case that Janus also symbolized Roman social transition from an agrarian to
urban society -- a figure mediating change. His month, January, bridges new
year and last year, future and past.
January 2005 was a month of Middle Eastern revolutions, marking
the transition from the despair of dictatorship to the uncertain spectacle
but demonstrably productive power of democracy.
The Jan. 9 Palestinian election and last Sunday's Iraqi vote
were revolutionary. In concert with America's global war on tyranny, these
political revolutions lay the foundation for a more peaceful 21st century.
Revolutionary January's most eloquent symbol was the ink-stained
finger. Iraqi voters dipped their fingers in purple ink -- a simple,
foolproof way to show they'd voted. As they left the polling stations, they
would point to the purple, publicly sticking a finger in the eye of terror.
Even Peter Jennings couldn't spin it, and Al Jazeera didn't miss it.
I spent the summer of 2004 on military duty in Iraq, and the
January elections were a constant subject of discussion. Iraqis told me the
election was their "big chance," the opportunity to escape the legacy of
dictatorship. One Shia I met in Baghdad told me to beware of "your American
view of us." He insisted that "you divide us in ways we do not divide
He attacked the "American" view that Iraq's Shia, Sunni and Kurd
would inevitably clash along ethnic and religious lines. "We are more
nationalistic than you think," he warned me. "You will see that in the
Another Iraqi (a well-heeled Sunni) told me he agreed with that
assessment. He said Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his terrorists would fail to
ignite a Shia-Sunni war. "We have a more secular tradition than other Arab
countries," he said. Neither man thought elections were magic -- they were
an opportunity, not a guarantee.
The Iraqi revolution required Iraqi courage. The revolt also
required the presence and steady effort of allied soldiers and Iraqi
security forces. I attended a conference last June where the commander of
Multi-National Corps-Iraq, Lt. Gen. Tom Metz, said that the Iraqi elections
were absolutely key to coalition strategy in Iraq. Metz was my boss, and
paraphrasing your commander is risky, but he made it clear to me that the
January elections would be his most important measure of his command's
relative success or failure. I'd chalk up last Sunday's democratic election
as a success, a triumph built on personal sacrifice by numerous soldiers and
The election also demonstrates just how little support Saddam's
henchmen and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's theo-fascists have inside Iraq. These
groups aren't insurgents in any progressive sense. Though Michael Moore
calls them Minutemen, they are political reactionaries and mass-murderers.
Their power derives from physical threat, not political appeal. Iraq's real
Minutemen in the vanguard of popular revolt are the Iraqi voters whose
actions said "give me liberty," despite the threats of reactionary thugs who
promised to give them death.
Palestine and Iraq both confront immense difficulties.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas faces a long struggle with embedded
guerrilla organizations. However, Abbas has something Yasser Arafat never
had: the legitimacy conferred by a popular election where he ran as a
The new Iraqi National Assembly will be a squabbling, ragtag
forum charged with hammering out a constitution while terrorists kill in the
streets. But the Assembly has several million purple fingers supporting it.
The transition from authoritarian whim to the democratic rule of
law will require a score of Januarys -- but these are beginnings with
strength and promise.