Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is being accused of fat-shaming following televised comments this month in which the general-turned-world leader demanded Egyptians to lose weight.
As part of his 20-minute rant, al-Sisi said physical education should become core curriculum at schools and suggested television shows should not let presenters or guests on the air if they are overweight.
The next morning, before sunrise, he drove his point home by energetically cycling to the national military academy in a Cairo suburb. In black sweatpants, a dark top, and a matching baseball hat, he told cadets that he was adamant they would not leave basic training before fulfilling fitness requirements.
The Egyptian president’s critics argue he was fat-shaming and taking an elitist approach to a problem whose roots lie to a large extent in poverty. al-Sisi detractors also criticized him for not offering concrete plans to combat obesity and spread fitness. Prices for food — particularly fruits and vegetables — have spiraled because of economic reforms introduced by al-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.
Al-Sisi, who often tells Egyptians they must buckle down and accept hardships to get through hard times, said they must change their habits to shed the fat.
“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?'” al-Sisi said in the December 15 comments.
The response to Al-Sisi’s remarks was critical. Some said al-Sisi was removed from reality or frequently speaks his mind without weighing his words first. 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.
Al-Sisi’s remarks “laid bare a great deal of elitism,” said Amar Ali Hassan, a well-known novelist and political commentator, adding: “They are symptomatic of an authoritarian ruler who’s convinced he’s on a mission, that he alone knows what is in the public interest while everyone else is ignorant of the lofty goals in his head.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.