CAIRO // Egypt's senior opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei called yesterday for a boycott of elections that begin in April.
"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," Mr ElBaradei, who leads the main opposition National Salvation Front, said yesterday on Twitter.
The 2010 parliamentary elections under Hosni Mubarak were widely criticised for rigging and voter manipulation.
Mr ElBaradei's stance was immediately ridiculed by the politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood, who said he was dodging the challenge and wanted power without a democratic mandate.
Rifts also appeared in the opposition. Some said a boycott would alienate ordinary Egyptians and allow the Islamists to maintain their dominance of parliament.
Egypt's Islamist president Mohammed Morsi announced on Thursday that four-stage elections to the lower house of parliament would begin on April 22.
A new parliament is important for Mr Morsi because it would mean he could no longer be held solely responsible for Egypt's parlous state as it struggles with economic and security problems.
An election would also be an important barometer of public support after six months of political dominance by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party.
The party won nearly half the seats in Egypt's first free and fair parliamentary elections to the People's Assembly in late 2011 and early 2012, the ultraconservative Al Nour Party won a quarter and liberals and secularists emerged with only a fraction. The lower house was dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court last summer because it found part of the house was elected unconstitutionally.
Since then, the president's approval rating has plunged from 72 per cent in August to 53 per cent at the end of January and the economy has suffered its worst slump since the uprising that deposed Mubarak in 2011. The Egyptian pound has had a controlled devaluation and the price of basic food products has soared.
The opposition says it wants a genuine national dialogue that leads to the formation of a national unity government, changes to the new constitution and peace on the streets.
Analysts predict that if elections go ahead as planned, the Freedom and Justice Party's parliamentary dominance will be reduced. Al Nour Party has also fractured, with many of its influential members breaking away to form Al Watan Party.
Liberal and secularist groups who make up the National Salvation Front have shown new unity at times of conflict in the past several months, but they have also started to disagree about political strategy.
Some members of the National Salvation Front, such as the populist Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi, have said they would boycott parliamentary elections, but the Front as a whole has not issued a decision.
Mahmoud Salem, an activist who protested against Mubarak and now opposes Mr Morsi, said a boycott offered no real alternative to the political impasse. "Where's ElBaradei's party, its plan, its economic vision?" he said.
The Freedom and Justice party also accused the opposition of ducking responsibility. "Running away from a popular test only means that some want to assume executive authority without a democratic mandate," said the party's deputy leader Essam El Erian. "We've never yet known them to face any election or serious test."
Mazen Hassan, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said: "We have a general dissatisfaction with the direction the country is going and ordinary people are angry at politicians of all ideologies.
"The question is, who are the mainstream parties going to lose to? Losses for one party have to go somewhere else, but no one has emerged as a new front runner."
Mr Morsi has also been criticised for scheduling the elections during Christian holidays. The first phase coincides with Palm Sunday and Easter for Egypt's minority Christians, who tend to travel during the holidays and have consistently voted against the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Didn't the president consult anyone before setting the dates?" asked Bishop Rafiq Gereish, the head of the Catholic Church's media office.
However, a presidential spokesman said yesterday Mr Morsi would reschedule elections that clash with Easter.
Turmoil in Egypt deepened with the second anniversary of the uprising on January 25, when anger spilled on to the streets. Rights groups have complained of widespread police abuse, and say brutality is on the rise in detention centres and at demonstrations. The groups said they held Mr Morsi responsible for failing to stop such practices, which have claimed 60 lives since late January.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press