Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

11. Egypt: the tempo of history

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More on the popular uprising in Egypt:

Not unusually, the western mainstream media have treated it as a total surprise, a shocking bolt from the blue.  Their surprise is not surprising.  They’ve been listening to the wrong people.

When I met Michal Shwartz in Haifa in 2008, she knew this was coming.  She isn’t psychic, she simply has a long view of history.  Though I’ve learned to be shy of the loaded and much abused word ‘revolutionary,’ that is how I see Michal, an Israeli activist with the Workers Advice Centre, or WAC as it’s known.  It builds unions of marginalized workers, across all the formidable barriers of race, nationality, gender and religion.  (Michal and several WAC comrades are featured in Our Way to Fight.)

The Workers’ Advice Centre is little known in Israel, even to most peace and human rights activists I met.  But if ever a just peace is to grow in Palestine-Israel, WAC will have played a unique role in creating the grounds for it, by fighting steadily for the universal right to a life that’s worth living.  In any context these days, I’d say that qualifies as revolutionary.

By my reading of history, this is a long, steep uphill battle.  Since Michal Shwartz has been at it for more than half a century, I asked her how she reads history.

She paused a moment, then replied: “We are not people who lack patience, who think we can change history with our own hands.  We look around, we see how things have gone in the past and how they are going now, and we work at the tempo that history forces on us.  Sometimes you have to run very fast to remain in the same place.  But experience shows that when you’re active you build something, and if you don’t stop in the middle and leave in despair, it will bring results.  Even if you won’t live to see them, at least you know you’re doing something that’s needed.”

Which brings us to Egypt.  During our first conversation, autumn 2008 in the Israeli agricultural village of Kufr Qara, Michal cited Egypt as an inspiring example of how change is built.  She said:

“In Egypt we see a very encouraging development over the last two years,  a strong wave of workers’ protests.  This is something quite different from the Islamic movement, and separate from the political parties – in Egypt even the communist party is pro-Mubarak.  It is also unusual in that women and men are organizing together, as workers.  Wages in Egypt have gone down greatly while the price of bread went up.  In a place called al-Mahala-el-Kubra, where there are big factories with 30,000 workers or more, they’ve been striking to get rid of the government-controlled union.  They are demanding the right to a decent living wage, the right to organize independent unions, and new political parties.  Of course the official reaction is extremely violent, but even so, the Egyptian workers didn’t just go on strike once and then stop, on the contrary their resistance has been growing.  Now they are calling for a change of regime, an end to the dictatorship.  You won’t see this in most of the press, not even on Al-Jazeera.  Our website is blocked in Egypt, many friends there cannot get to it.  So we send messages back and forth by email, and recently two of our activists went there to meet in person with workers who are protesting.   This is a new development, one which we find very inspiring.  It goes in exactly the direction where we believe things will develop.”

In such a long view of history, Egypt’s intifada is thrilling, but no surprise.

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

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