Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sparked a social media backlash earlier this month when during a televised discussion with Health Minister Hala Zayed he chided his constituents for being overweight and called on his fellow citizens to lose weight.
As Zayed read off the latest figures on the nation’s obesity rate, including that the finding that 75 percent of Egyptians are overweight, al-Sisi interrupted her. Turning to the audience he asked: “Why are we doing this to ourselves?”
He reportedly poked fun at the prime minister – seated next to him – telling him he should not put on more weight, before launching into a 20-minute soliloquy about how Egyptians should exercise more. The next morning the president was photographed cycling through a Cairo suburb, sporting sweat pants, an athletic jacket and a baseball cap.
Though his supporters welcomed his remarks, many Egyptians responded negatively on social media with a mixture of jokes and criticisms. One meme depicted a woman being taken away by a police officer while she tells him: “What’s wrong? I only gained two kilos.”
Other responses slammed al-Sisi for taking an elitist, “fat-shaming” stance that fails to offer concrete steps targeting the problem. The president’s austere economic reforms, they charged, greatly increased the cost of fresh produce, making cheaper junk food more appealing; this, as millions of Egyptians already live under the poverty line.
Yet no one is disputing that the North African country has an obesity problem. The World Health Organization estimates that 63 percent of Egyptians are overweight and 36 percent are obese, one of the highest obesity rates in the world.
The problem also includes high rates of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, all major risk factors for morbidity and mortality,” Ali H. Mokdad, Professor of Health Metrics Sciences and an obesity expert at the University of Washington, told The Media Line.
The problem, however, is not confined to Egypt. “It is also true for many countries in the region, especially Gulf states,” he added.
These nations urgently need a plan targeting obesity, one that involves various sectors and places strong emphasis on eating a balanced diet and increasing levels of physical activity, he explained.
“To reduce weight, there needs to be political will and initiatives that encourage a change of eating behavior. These steps include making fresh fruits and vegetables available at a reasonable price, providing exercise opportunities in safe environments (especially clear of cars, such as parks and sidewalks), implementing policies for restaurants and food manufacturers that allow for healthy options and require clear labels about what food contains,” Mokdad said.
“Parents should serve as role models for their children, and the medical system has to be involved at the level of prevention.”
Elsewhere in the region, obesity is a growing concern. Subhi M. Abu Abid, a specialist in morbid and chronic obesity at Ichilov Medical Center in Tel-Aviv, told The Media Line that the rate of overweight people among both Palestinians and Israelis is about the same.
More than a third of the population is obese, of which 10 percent is morbidly obese, he explained.
“This is the main medical challenge in the region because it is often includes other ailments such as diabetes, hyper-tension, joint problems and sterility. When patients lose weight, many of these accompanying afflictions often disappear.”
“Education about obesity should start at school,” Abu Abid continued. “Lately, we are seeing teenagers who are 160-170 kg. [353-375 pounds], something we have never seen before. We learn that they often sit at and play on a computer without moving, while they eat and eat. People therefore need more instruction about what and what not to eat and the vital importance of exercise.”
“In short, the Egyptian president’s call is right and needs to be followed up with concrete steps to ensure that if Egyptians decide to live healthier, the system will support their behavioral changes,” Mokdad concluded.