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On Point

A Bridge Between the Future and the Past


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 ourselves."

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 election."

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 civilians.

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 pro-peace candidate.

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.

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