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.
President Mohammed Morsi set the start of a staggered, four-stage voting process for April 27 ending in June. The newly elected parliament would convene on July 6, a decree issued late Thursday night said.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who leads the main opposition National Salvation Front, wrote on his Twitter account Friday that Morsi's "decision to go for parliamentary elections amidst severe societal polarization and eroding state authority is a recipe for disaster."
Egypt has been mired in political turmoil for the past two years. The current phase began when Morsi took over as president in June 2012.
Opposition accuses Morsi of power grab
The opposition accuses Morsi and the Brotherhood of monopolizing power and going back on campaign promises to set up an inclusive government and introduce far-reaching reforms.
Morsi's supporters say the new government cannot immediately fix years of neglect and poor administration from ousted Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule, and say they have the legitimacy of the ballot box in their favour.
Tensions deepened with the second anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising, when anger spilled out onto the streets and violence again engulfed the nation. About 70 people died in a wave of protests, clashes and riots that began with the anniversary and lasted for weeks.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group, which emerged as the most powerful political faction since Egypt's uprising two years ago, has already been setting the stage for elections through outreach programs, including helping poor families receive subsidized bread that is often hard to find.
The group has grassroots support partly through its vast network of charities that help the poor.
The mostly secular and liberal opposition has trailed significantly at the polls, but Morsi's popularity has waned in recent months.
Among the most pressing issue for Egypt is its economy, which has been badly hit by the nation's turmoil with foreign currency reserves falling below a critical level to less than $14 billion.
The country is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a nearly $5 billion loan. Insiders say talks have been prolonged because of Morsi's reluctance to implement unpopular austerity measures ahead of elections.
Abdullah Shehata, an economy expert with the Brotherhood, said the elections will help the country's ailing economy.
"The elections will be positive because it will be the final institution to fall into place after the presidency and the constitution," he said. "The coming parliament will be elected by the people and will help build confidence in Egypt again. "
Possible opposition boycott
ElBaradei's group, though, has warned it would boycott the vote unless there are talks with the president aimed at forming a national unity government with more participation by the various political groups. A national dialogue by Morsi failed so far failed to bridge differences or build confidence. The opposition has also said it will boycott if election laws written by the interim parliament favour the Brotherhood's party.
The founder of the opposition April 6 movement said if the election law is not agreed upon, they will not support participation in elections.
"The election laws have not been agreed upon and this is an essential problem," Ahmed Maher said. "Until now, the Brotherhood party is dealing in the Shura Council as if there is no opposition and they are forcing these laws on the rest," he added, referring to Egypt's interim parliament.
The most recent show of unrest came in the restive city of Port Said, where a general strike entered its sixth day on Friday. Factory workers, activists and labourers have held street rallies that brought the coastal city on the northern tip of the Suez Canal to a halt, though shipping in the international waterway has not been affected.
Thousands took the streets again on Friday, demanding Morsi's ouster and denouncing his call for April elections. More than 40 people died in violent protests there late last month.
Complaints of police abuse
Meanwhile, rights groups have complained of widespread police abuse, saying in a joint statement Wednesday that brutality is on the rise in detention centres and at demonstrations.
The groups said they hold Morsi responsible for failing to stop such practices.
For its part, Egypt's powerful military has shown signs of growing impatience with Morsi, issuing thinly veiled threats that it might seize power again as it did after Mubarak stepped down and the army generals took over, remaining in control until Morsi's election.
After several spasms of deadly violence on the streets, a decimated economy and depleted foreign reserves, many hold Morsi responsible for the turmoil.
His critics say he is not much different from Mubarak, pointing to a highly controversial presidential decree from November in which Morsi gave himself near absolute powers.
The decree has since been rescinded but Morsi and the Brotherhood in the meantime managed to push through a constitution — drafted by an Islamist-dominated panel — that was approved in a referendum late last year.
According to Thursday's decree, Egypt's 27 provinces will be divided into four groups that will vote separately over two days over a period ending on June 27. This is allegedly to give the more than 50 million voters enough time to participate in the balloting.
Egypt's previous, Islamist-dominated parliament was disbanded on June 14, after the Supreme constitutional Court ruled on the grounds that a third of the chamber members were elected illegally.