Russell Shorto


What’s Wrong with the Crowd…

Where is the Cairo crowd heading?  Maybe nowhere

It’s easier to define a revolutionary than a revolution. Hard-wired into most human beings, but never accessed by most of them, is the capacity to be transfigured, to be seized by confidence that a new world is being born. Everyone around is suddenly a brother or a sister. Looters may be carting off the Ministry’s computers, but you are giving the Minister’s bodyguard a white rose and he will break down in tears and rally to The People.

What persuades people to become The People, to “go down into the street” and risk everything?… In Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of thousands have acknowledged their contempt for their rulers, and realised that they are no longer frightened of them. Lenin thought that revolution required not only that the masses lose patience but that the ruling class loses confidence in its own system. Tunisians and Egyptians picked up that whiff of uncertainty, and they marched…

The question for Tahrir Square has been the same since the protests began 10 days ago. How does a “victorious crowd” move on to become a revolution? The Cairo mass, for all its guts and resilience, doesn’t seem capable of that move. The only recognisable structures to emerge are first-aid posts and food stalls. It has evolved no acknowledged leadership – there’s no Egyptian Lech Walesa, no Vaclav Havel or Ayatollah Khomeini…

There are reasons for these weaknesses. The main one is the crushing of Egyptian “civil society” by police terror during the 30 Mubarak years. A crowd needs more than coherent leadership. It requires institutional allies to achieve a revolution… But in Egypt such bodies, penetrated or castrated by the regime, have little independence. The great crowd, an astonishing mixture of angry plebs and young middle-class intellectuals, is on its own.

Going Deep

So my girlfriend’s ten-year-old son comes home from school and starts in on a story in his rapid-fire, two-thirds-English-one-third-Dutch lingo about Miep, the lunch monitor, and I must not be getting it because Miep is a woman’s name but he says “he” several times, but then he’s talking about a Dolce and Gabbana handbag and how it’s fun to push his friend into Miep and make Miep angry, so now, yeah, I’m lost.  It takes about three minutes to sort out the story, which is this: Miep is a transvestite–an aged one, no less, and with a bit of fashion sense. The kids are all just as cool as can be with this, but, hey, there’s no reason you can’t have some fun with it.  So one thing you can do under the circumstances is shove your friend into Miep, which will result in an angry retort in a much lower register than the clothing would seem to warrant.  Miep gets deep.

Why I’m relaying this: it’s one of those little touches of life in the Netherlands.  Can you imagine a transvestite lunch monitor in an American primary school? I think not. Maybe the old live-and-let-live Dutch liberalism is a thing of the past, but there are still plenty of of social crevices that reveal a profound difference in sensibility between Europe and the U.S.

You Say You Want a Revolution

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, released in December, 59% of Egyptians think democracy is better than any other kind of government, and only 8% think suicide bombing is justifiable.  But…

82% favor stoning people who commit adultery

77% support cutting off the hands of thieves

84% believe in the death penalty for those who leave Islam for another religion.

Mubarak in 2009

Portions of a May 2009 U.S. diplomat’s assessment of Hosni Mubarak:

He is a tried and true realist, innately cautious and conservative, and has little time for idealistic goals. Mubarak viewed President Bush (43) as naive, controlled by subordinates, and totally unprepared for dealing with post-Saddam Iraq…

On several occasions Mubarak has lamented the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the downfall of Saddam. He routinely notes that Egypt did not like Saddam and does not mourn him, but at least he held the country together and countered Iran…

No issue demonstrates Mubarak’s worldview more than his reaction to demands that he open Egypt to genuine political competition and loosen the pervasive control of the security services… We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world. He can harken back to the Shah of Iran: the U.S. encouraged him to accept reforms, only to watch the country fall into the hands of revolutionary religious extremists…

Mubarak is a classic Egyptian secularist who hates religious extremism and interference in politics… As with regional issues, Mubarak, seeks to avoid conflict and spare his people from the violence he predicts would emerge from unleashed personal and civil liberties.

The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, and if Mubarak is still alive it is likely he will run again, and, inevitably, win.

Transatlantic Hi

Welcome to my revamped website.  It now has a title–to reflect a basic fact of my existence, which colors my writing and reporting: I am an American who lives in Amsterdam, and this perch gives me both occasion to study what is going on around me in Europe and a sometimes useful distance from which to monitor the U.S.  My work as a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine reflects this: one piece will be about the Catholic Church in Europe, another about the Texas board of education.  My alternate job–as director of the John Adams Institute, an independent American culture center in Amsterdam–accomplishes the same thing in a different way.  The Institute brings American speakers to the Netherlands to give European audiences a window onto what’s going on in the U.S.  Recently we’ve hosted Spike Lee and Jonathan Franzen.  On February 8, we have Robert Kaplan discussing the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean, and on March 2 Nicholas Carr will debate the internet itself.

After having spent most of the past five years in the Netherlands, I remain convinced there is a lot that the U.S. can learn from Europe; there are also great waves of misinformation flowing both ways.  Try as they might (which by and large they don’t), Europeans can’t help but see America as a cartoon.  And the Fox News view of Amsterdam as a den of vice is equally unfortunate: it may be useful to score political points, but whitewashing complexities blinds one to a lot that is of value.  The Dutch social welfare system, for example (see my Times Magazine piece of May 3, 2009, under Articles), is an ultra-sophisticated public-private mix, which gives, among other things, good health care at a fraction of what Americans pay.  Experiencing it was one of my first insights as a Transatlantic being.  Living with its sensible benefits, while observing the Republican majority in Congress trying to dismantle the already tepid reforms enacted by the last Congress, is an exercise in exasperation.

About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar