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Egypt opposition leader calls for election boycott

Sunday - 2/24/2013, 6:24am  ET

An Egyptian man with his three children wear red during a symbolic hanging at an anti-government protest in front of Egypt's high court building in downtown Cairo, Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. The Arabic writing on the banners reads, "death is more honorable for me and my children than poverty and hunger," and " Jeeka, Christy and Mohammed to heaven." Egypt's president called multi-stage parliamentary elections beginning in April but a key opposition leader warned Friday that the vote may only inflame tensions unless there are serious political talks first.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

AYA BATRAWY
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called Saturday for a boycott of parliamentary elections, drawing immediate criticism from some within his movement who said it was a hasty decision.

The dispute showed the fragility of a fairly new opposition front forged after the deeply fragmented movement found little success at the polls since it led the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Opposition infighting would only help ensure that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group remains Egypt's dominant political force after the next vote.

"(I) called for parliamentary election boycott in 2010 to expose sham democracy. Today I repeat my call, will not be part of an act of deception," Nobel laureate ElBaradei, who leads the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF), wrote on his Twitter account.

The comment reiterated a frequently heard opposition sentiment that democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi is acting like Mubarak.

Elections under Mubarak's three-decade rule were widely rigged and parliament was dominated by members of his ruling party.

Morsi called for the elections in a decree late Thursday night -- a four-stage vote starting at the end of April and concluding in June.

On Friday, ElBaradei said holding elections during this time of deep political polarization "is a recipe for disaster."

Morsi's Brotherhood accused the opposition of running away from the challenge.

The deputy head of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Essam el-Erian, responded to ElBaradei's call on his Facebook page.

"Running away from a popular test only means that some want to assume executive authority without a democratic mandate," he said of the opposition. "We've never yet known them to face any election or serious test."

The mutual recriminations reflected a new escalation in political tensions that could spill into even wider strikes and protests ahead of the elections.

The opposition has accused Morsi and his Brotherhood backers of using election wins to monopolize power in tactics similar to the former regime.

They accuse Morsi of reneging on a promise to form an inclusive government representative of the Christian minority, women, and liberals.

In the country's last major vote, a hotly disputed constitutional referendum in December, ElBaradei urged his supporters at the last minute to participate and vote "No" after a debate within the opposition over whether to boycott.

The referendum was mired in controversy and rights groups criticized unchecked voting irregularities.

The Islamists, accused of ramming the charter through a drafting panel that they dominated, won passage by more than 60 percent, but turnout was low around 30 percent. Critics said the document opened the way for imposing Islamic law more strictly in Egypt.

Tensions soared in the run-up to the vote, with violent clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters that led to bloodshed outside the presidential palace.

Almost immediately after ElBaradei's boycott call, rifts began to emerge in the opposition. Even members of his opposition bloc, the NSF, said the group had not yet decided on a boycott.

Some activists criticized the call, saying it would alienate the masses and allow the Brotherhood free rein over the lower house of parliament, which writes laws and is supposed to monitor the president.

The Brotherhood already has the most seats in the upper chamber of parliament, largely an advisory body currently serving as an interim parliament. And it also successfully fielded Morsi as its candidate for president.

In Egypt's first free elections in 2011, the Brotherhood won nearly half of seats in parliament and the more conservative Islamists known as Salafis won a quarter.

A splinter Salafi party has emerged since then and competition for seats is expected to be fierce, particularly in Egypt's vast rural areas and poor city slums.

Within months of being elected, the lower house of parliament was disbanded in June of last year after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that a third of the chamber's members were elected illegally.

The upcoming elections are to reinstate the legislature.

Liberal and secular parties have trailed significantly in all elections since Mubarak was toppled. Their outreach across Egypt, while growing, is still dwarfed by the Islamists' well organized network of charities and programs that assist the poor.

But at the same time, since Morsi's election as Egypt's first civilian and Islamist president last summer, his popularity has eroded.

Blogger and commentator Mahmoud Salem, a longtime activist who now opposes Morsi, said he disagreed with a boycott because it offers no real alternative to the political impasse.

"Where's ElBaradei's party, its plan, its economic vision? Let's say a boycott is the right answer. What will they do so that they can be competitive in the next election?" Salem said.

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