Police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Mursi during clashes that erupted on Saturday as he launched development projects in southern Egyptian where residents have long complained of being neglected by the central government.
Mursi was in Sohag province to unveil a housing project and new education complex when thousands of anti-government protesters tried to storm the hall where he was meeting with local officials. The rioting came as Mursi was trying to reach out to residents of Sohag, one of Egypt’s poorest southern cities.
Under long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular uprising two years ago, the southern area known as al-Saeed was underdeveloped and impoverished. Businessmen close to Mubarak's family were blamed for orchestrating economic reform that liberalized the economy, but left the country's poor hard-pressed to reap the benefits of economic growth.
Mursi sought to assure residents there that the era of corruption, deprivation and neglect had ended.
In one of the country’s high-profile corruption cases, former Tourism Minister Zuheir Garana and ex-Housing Minister Ahmed Maghrabi were found not guilty Saturday in a case involving the sale of state land for cut-rate prices in the country's prized resort areas along the Red Sea.
“Sohag is the heart of al-Saeed, which cannot be dismembered from Egypt or Egyptians,” Mursi said.
“We have received all of your requests and suggestions that you put forth and we will look into them,” he said, adding that a two hour-long Cabinet meeting took place to see how to assist al-Saeed with housing, jobs, roads and security.
Supporters of Mursi chanted inside a hall where he delivered his speech, saying they would sacrifice their lives in support of the president who hails from the powerful Muslim Brotherhood group.
But outside the hall, thousands of people protested against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing them of trying to monopolize power and reneging on promises of reform. They tried to storm the hall, but supporters of the president intervened.
Witnesses said police fired tear gas to break up the clashes.
The state-run Ahram news website said student protests and a boycott by professors forced Mursi to cancel his visit to the university in Sohag, where he was to also inaugurate a medical facility.
Anger against Morsi has been the most vivid in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. Police were forced to hand over security of the Mediterranean city to the military after protesters torched the security headquarters last week. The death toll from the past several weeks of violence there reached 48 on Saturday after a protester died of internal bleeding from a tear gas canister that fractured his skull, according to a medical official.
The unrest has hurt Egypt’s economy and the government's ability to implement painful austerity measures needed to secure international loans and reign in spending, particularly on massive subsidies for wheat and diesel.
On Saturday, dozens of bakery owners who receive subsidized wheat from the government protested in Cairo against the austerity measures and shortages of diesel fuel. The protest was held amid economic reforms the government is seeking to boost the economy and ensure that subsidized bread reaches millions of poor Egyptians who complain that the bakeries sell the wheat for a profit.
Another effort to boost the economy involves reconciliation talks with former officials to return millions of dollars earned under rampant corruption during Mubarak’s nearly three decade-long rule.