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Opposition group to boycott elections in Egypt

CAIRO -- In another blow to Egypt's troubled democratic transition, the main opposition coalition announced Tuesday it will boycott upcoming parliamentary elections because it doesn't trust the Islamic-led government of President Mohammed Morsi to guarantee a fair vote.

The decision by the secular and liberal National Salvation Front was widely expected after the nation's highest court ruled this month that provisions in the election law were unconstitutional. The opposition's strategy virtually ensures Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Nour Party, will dominate the new legislature when voting begins in April.

The opposition has struggled since the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak to forge a galvanizing vision for a new Egypt. It has been plagued by internal divisions and overwhelmed by the grassroots reach of Islamists to turn out voters. Despite its shortcomings, however, the salvation front was the only credible voice challenging the country's drift toward political Islam.

"There can be no elections without a law that guarantees the fairness of the election process and a government that can implement such a law and be trusted by the people," Sameh Ashour, a spokesman for the salvation front, told a news conference.

The opposition is "boycotting because they have limited options," said Magdy Sobhi, an analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He added that Morsi refused to meet key opposition demands, including appointing a new Cabinet and forming a committee to amend the new Islamist-drafted constitution.

"We are back at square one," he said. "There is a large division in the Egyptian street. The only solution now is for the presidency and the main opposition to sit down and have genuine talks to solve the political crisis."

The boycott move comes amid an imploding economy and widening political unrest that in recent weeks has sparked protests and riots that killed more than 50 people. Activists in Port Said and other cities along the Suez Canal have staged civil disobedience strikes aimed at weakening Egypt's vital ports.

Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which controlled more than 40 percent of the seats in the now disbanded parliament, have often appeared unsure how to solve the cascading problems. Without a viable opposition, the evolving political scenario pits the relatively moderate Brotherhood against ultraconservative rival Salafis in a struggle over how deeply Islam will shape public life.

The salvation front has offered a secular course but its appeal was limited and its message has not resonated beyond Cairo, Alexandria and other large cities. Many in the provinces are suspicious of opposition leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate; Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak; and Hamdeen Sabahi, a firebrand leftist.

The opposition also rejected Morsi's calls on Tuesday for a national dialogue. The nation's powerful military has urged such talks to prevent an economic meltdown. But there appeared little room for compromise.

"We tell Morsi, 'Dialogue with yourself. Dialogue with your party,' " Ashour said. "The Egyptian people will not accept a dialogue that is imposed."

Participating in the elections "would not be just a political mistake, but a crime after what has happened," said Ahmed Abdelhamid, a leftist activist. "But boycotting elections is not enough. ... The opposition must make clear decisions, either continue the revolution or participate in politics."

The staggered parliamentary elections are scheduled to start in April and end in June. The country has been without a parliament since the Constitutional Court disbanded the chamber in June. Morsi has accumulated broader powers, which have led to months of turmoil in the Arab world's most populous nation.

The vote will come despite a controversial election law that critics say gives the Muslim Brotherhood an unfair advantage through redistricting electoral constituencies. The Constitutional Court ruled against parts of the law, including an article regarding judicial supervision and one that could limit independent seats. The Islamist-controlled upper house of parliament then amended the law and it was approved by Morsi.

Los Angeles Times special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.

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