Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is being criticised for calling on his compatriots to lose weight.
In televised comments earlier this month, the general-turned-president railed about the number of overweight people he sees and told Egyptians that they must take better care of themselves.
Sisi said physical education should become part of the core curriculum at schools and universities and suggested TV shows should not let presenters or guests on the air if they are overweight.
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“The second I walk into any place I look at things you cannot possibly imagine I would notice and I ask myself – ‘What is this? Who are these people? Why are these people not looking after themselves?” Sisi said on December 15.
Sisi’s critics said he was fat-shaming and taking an elitist approach to a problem whose roots lie to a large extent in poverty.
They also criticised him for not offering concrete plans to combat obesity and spread fitness.
Mohamed Zaree, a rights lawyer, said Sisi needs to enable Egyptians to lose weight rather than ordering them to exercise.
“He needs to make healthy food available at low prices, set up venues where people can exercise and allow emergency obesity operations to be performed under the cover of the state’s medical care system,” Zaree said.
Prices for food – particularly fruits and vegetables – have spiraled because of economic reforms introduced by Sisi, often making cheaper junk foods more appealing.
No one disputes that Egypt has a weight problem. One in three Egyptians suffers from obesity, the world’s highest rate, according to a 2017 global study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
It found 35 percent of adults – some 19 million people in the country of 100 million – are obese, again the world’s highest rate, as well as 10.2 percent of Egyptian children, or around 3.6 million.
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Egypt’s pro-government media trumpeted his comments. Parliament, packed by his supporters, has said it intends to introduce legislation making physical education part of the core curriculum at schools.
In social media, possibly the only platform of relatively free speech left in Egypt, the response was more critical. Some said Sisi was removed from reality.
A flood of jokes spilled forth on Twitter and Facebook, playing on the risks of being too fat under a president whose security forces have arrested thousands in a widespread crackdown against dissent.
One joke that went viral showed people in a car sucking in their bellies as they approached a police checkpoint.
Another has a man asking to hide at a friend’s house from police until he loses weight. In another, a man informs on his overweight wife to authorities on the phone.