By Amina Ismail and Lena Masri
CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptians on social media have been poking fun at comments from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi calling out Egyptians for being overweight – the second time the former general has picked up on the subject in as many months.
When Health Minister Hala Zayed presented new numbers on the weight of Egyptians on Saturday, Sisi interrupted her.
“Why are we doing this to ourselves?” Sisi asked from the audience, referring to Egypt’s high obesity rate. He then spoke for almost 20 minutes about how Egytians should exercise more.
Since then, memes imagining a security crackdown on corpulence have multiplied.
One pictured a woman being taken away by a police officer and telling him: “What’s wrong? I only gained two kilos.”
Of about 17 million Egyptians who had their height and weight measured in a hepatitis C campaign, around 75 percent were found to be overweight, Zayed said in her presentation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 63 percent of Egyptians are overweight, including nearly 36 percent who are obese, one of the highest rates in the world.
Sisi said he sometimes sees obese people and thinks: “Why is she not taking care of herself?” and “can you walk like that?”
Nearly 30 percent of Egypt’s population, which now numbers 98 million, live under the poverty line.
There is a clear correlation between poverty and obesity, the WHO says. Obesity can lead to noncommunicable diseases, which account for most deaths in Egypt, WHO’s Egypt office said.
Sisi, who has been pictured several times on his bike in sports gear, told a youth conference in November that too many students were overweight. At the same event, he triggered a social media backlash after telling citizens to “build (the) country” rather than fixating on sharply rising potato prices.
His words hit a nerve with citizens struggling to get by following austerity measures brought in under an IMF-backed economic reform programme.
Sisi’s comments on body weight are likely to be viewed in a similar vein, said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
“Most will understandably see the president’s comments about the importance of losing weight as a way of deflecting concerns about the dramatic pace of inflation,” he said.
(Reporting by Amina Ismail and Lena Masri; Writing by Lena Masri, Editing by Aidan Lewis, William Maclean)