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Egyptians in south clash over president's visit

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AYA BATRAWY | March 16, 2013 01:52 PM EST | AP

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CAIRO — Police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi 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.

Morsi 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 Morsi 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.

Morsi 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," Morsi 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 Morsi 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 Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails, 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 Morsi 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.

Saturday's verdict against the two former Cabinet ministers comes at a time when several members of the former autocrat's inner-most circle have been released from prison in recent months.

Egypt's prosecutor had accused Garana of agreeing to sell land in Ain Sokhna to a businessman from the United Arab Emirates for $1 a square meter (yard) without an open bidding process in violation of the law. The two ex-ministers, along with another former government tourism official, Khaled Makhlouf, also were accused of profiting from the illegal acquisition of land in Hurghada.

Garana has already been sentenced in two separate cases to a total of eight years in prison following Mubarak's ouster. Maghrabi was also convicted in a previous trial of intentionally damaging public finances and sentenced to five years in prison.

Their requests for appeals in the earlier cases have been accepted. Security officials said the two would remain in prison to ensure they do not flee pending retrials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.

Mubarak's two sons, Gamal and Alaa, are in prison while on trial on charges of insider trading and using their influence to buy state land at a fraction of its market value.

Separately, a court said it would issue a verdict on April 27 in another corruption case that 52 lawyers filed against former prime minister Ahmed Nazif, former finance minister Yousef Boutros-Ghali and former interior minister Habib el-Adly. The case involves the violation of traffic laws in issuing license plates for vehicles.

The three have already been sentenced to prison in separate corruption cases. Both Nazif and el-Adly are imprisoned, while Boutros-Ghali was tried in absentia.