Young people across Egypt have gone through political, social and economic turmoil over the past ten years and since the 25 January Revolution. Many may have decided to work in Asian or European countries or to look for opportunities in the Gulf. However, the majority have decided to stay and to help rebuild their country hand-in-hand with the government.
However, there has been some debate about what sort of sacrifices the younger generation may be willing to make for their country and their sense of belonging. But what is meant by a sense of belonging? Should we define it as having to do with belonging to a certain culture, geographical space, or work, family and surroundings?
The media can play an important role in clarifying such questions, and films in particular can have important effects on young people. Last year, the film Al-Mamar (The Passage), an Egyptian blockbuster that swept the Arab world and was based on the true story of Egyptian commandos during the War of Attrition (1967-1970), had a profound effect on many young people.
“It was the first time I had seen a film that represented this period of time that my generation did not live through,” said Rowan Mohamed Ali, 21, a student at the College of Language and Communication in Alexandria.
For Ali’s generation, there has never been a wartime film produced by Egyptian cinema that has kept young people glued to their seats in the way this film did. She remembers watching Al-Tareek ila Eilat (The Road to Eilat, 1993) as a child, but she was not as fascinated, she said. Al-Mamar, on the other hand, a film made with a budget of LE100 million, represents breathtaking war scenes entangled with human stories and an action-packed narrative.
“The film touched us and moved us. The gorgeous visuals, the powerful acting and the overriding plot made the whole experience awe-inspiring,” Ali said. “Many of us watched the film in the cinema several times without ever feeling bored.”
For this reason, Ali decided to focus on Egyptian military achievements for her graduation project. When Covid-19 made this difficult, she and friends delved into what gives people their sense of belonging.
“We divided the sense of belonging into place, job, culture and traditions,” Ali said.
“Then we launched a social media campaign that reached almost 10,000 followers in less than three months. We engaged many young people in their definition of a sense of belonging as we heard their opinions and stories, too,” she added.
Ali’s graduation project Thalathat Ahrof Sakena (Three Arabic Letters) refers to “Msr,” or Egypt, and addresses young people’s sense of identity. It investigates young people’s social problems in order to address what some have seen as a sense of disconnectedness, or an underlying deterioration in the joint discussion of societal issues.
What makes many young people want to emigrate is one question that may come to minds when inquiring about youth’s sense of belonging. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the number of Egyptians abroad has now reached almost 10 million, and Egypt is one of the world’s largest sources of emigrants, with six to eight per cent of the population living abroad. Ironically, it is also one of the largest receivers of immigrants, with some five million living on its territory.
“It is paradoxical to see people coming into the country for better opportunities and others fleeing abroad looking for better opportunities,” said Maram Fawzi, a young researcher who lived almost ten years of her childhood in Saudi Arabia. “I decided to return to my country and go to university here, and I will live my life in Egypt,” Fawzi said.
“I always had a strong sense of belonging in Alexandria and Egypt as a young child. I always waited for the holidays to come so I could go back to my country,” she added.
Fawzi said that social media influencers could have a great impact on youth, and they might imitate them and regard them as role models. Such influencers may have millions of followers, making them a double-edged sword as their content is not controlled on social media.
Karima Mohamed, a writer, joined Fawzi and Ali in their powerful sense of belonging. She said that social media campaigns could also help to remind young people of their culture, their language, their civilisation, their history and their love for their country.
“When we watched the television series Al-Ikhteyar (The Choice) in Ramadan, we were overwhelmed,” Mohamed said. “We lived the stories, characters, plot and setting. It was an amazing work of art.”
The series is based on the true story of thunderbolt forces commander Ahmed Saber Al-Mansi martyred at the Burth Square checkpoint in Rafah in 2017. It explores the heroic operations executed by the Egyptian army since 2014 in the region, uncovering many operations and giving an insightful look into events in Sinai and the war on terrorism. It represents many great victories that we should all be proud of.
“More and more people are trying to join the military as a result,” Mohamed added.
“Everyone wants to fight terrorism, now that the series has revealed the naked truth of the terrorists’ bloodthirstiness and treachery,” she added.
Youssef Raafat was one of the rising stars of Al-Ikhteyar and played the role of martyr Mahmoud Sabri, one of the soldiers that died with Mansi. “A lot of teenagers in Egypt did not have much sense of the army’s engagement in fighting terrorism before the series came out. Now, more and more young people are joining the army to express their patriotism and serve their country,” Raafat told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Raafat has also had roles in Casablanca (2019) and Kalabsh (2017) and said that such productions had challenged stereotypes untouched for years. Made to high standards of cinematography and screenwriting, they could engage young people very effectively, he added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly