CAIRO – Egypt's main opposition coalition said Tuesday it will boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, a decision likely to deepen the nation's political crisis and worsen an already troubled economy.
The announcement by the liberal, secular National Salvation Front was made in a televised news conference just hours ahead of the start of a "national dialogue" called for by President Mohammed Morsi to produce recommendations to ensure the "transparency" and "integrity" of the vote.
Leading NSF member Sameh Ashour, who also heads Egypt's lawyers' union, announced the decision and said the NSF was also boycotting Tuesday's dialogue.
"We tell Morsi, dialogue with yourself. Dialogue with your party," he said. "The Egyptian people will not accept a dialogue that is imposed."
"God willing, the elections will reflect the spirit of Egyptians," Morsi said in opening remarks at the start of the dialogue, held at the presidential palace in a Cairo suburb. Most of those in attendance were Islamist politicians, with representatives of pro-democracy youth groups and rights activists staying away.
One of the NSF's most prominent leaders, Nobel Peace Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, already called for a boycott on Saturday, but Tuesday's decision reflected the view of all of the group's political parties.
The United States reacted swiftly to the boycott decision, calling on the front reverse its position.
State Department Spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the U.S. is encouraging all Egyptian parties and potential candidates to compete, saying the election offers Egyptians an opportunity to have their voices heard.
It is "critical" for Egyptian parties to take part so that Egyptians can select representatives from a broad range of political positions, said Vasquez.
Called by Morsi last weekend, the elections will start in April and be staggered over a two-month period. Egypt's last legislature was elected in late 2011 and early 2012 but was dissolved by a court ruling in June, leaving the then-ruling military with legislative powers. Morsi took over the powers in August, then passed them in December to the Islamist-dominated upper chamber known as the Shura Council.
The opposition has been calling on Morsi to defuse the nation's political crisis before holding elections, which it says will plunge the country deeper into chaos unless its demands are first met. It wants a "neutral" government to replace the one led by Islamist Hesham Kandil, and for steps to be taken to ensure the independence of the judiciary.
The opposition also objects to an election law that was adopted this month by the Shura Council, arguing that it favored the Islamists, particularly Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
Ashour said Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, has consistently called for dialogue with the opposition but only after he created new conditions on the ground that are favorable to the Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamist group that has emerged as the most powerful political force in Egypt since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The opposition has sharply criticized Morsi for allowing an Islamist-dominated panel to rush the drafting of a new constitution and put it to referendum before reaching a national consensus on its contents as he promised during his election campaign. It maintains that Morsi has used the same tactic regarding the elections, calling for the vote before tensions are defused.
Egypt's latest political crisis is the worst since Mubarak's ouster. It began Jan. 25 when hundreds of thousands marked the second anniversary of the start of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak. Around 70 have died in clashes since, and hundreds have been wounded.