Pluto author Michael Riordon writes on the grassroots workers activity in Egypt which preceded the current upheaval. This article first appeared in Mondoweiss, the news website which covers American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective. Michael Riordon’s blog, Our Way to Fight, documents his travels through Israel/Palestine and comments on current affairs in the Middle East.
Not unusually, the western mainstream media have treated the Egyptian intifada as a total surprise, a shocking bolt from the blue. Their surprise is not surprising. Apparently 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 label ‘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.
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 call that revolutionary.
The way I read history, this is a long, steep uphill battle. Since Michal Shwartz has been at this 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 in the Israeli agricultural village of Kufr Qara, Michal cited Egypt as an inspiring example of how change is built. Why Egypt, I asked. In autumn 2008, she replied:
“In Egypt we see a very interesting development, a wave of workers’ protests over the last two years. This is something quite different from the Islamic movement, and separate from the political parties – in Egypt even the communist party is pro-Mubarak. This is also an unusual situation in that women and men are organizing together, as workers. As in so many countries under the neoliberal regime, in Egypt wages 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 change the bureaucratic union. They are demanding the right to a decent living wage, the right to organize an independent union, 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 articles back and forth by email, and recently two of our activists went there to meet with workers who are protesting. This is a new development, which we find very inspiring. It goes in exactly the direction where we believe things will develop.”
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