CAIRO – Egypt's president set parliamentary elections to begin in April – a decision that an opposition leader denounced Friday as "a recipe for disaster" because of the ongoing political turmoil in the country.
About 15,000 people took to the streets in the Suez Canal city of Port Said to demonstrate against President Mohammed Morsi, hanging effigies of him in the main square. Residents have been on a general strike for six days, demanding punishment for what they considered a heavy-handed police crackdown during unrest in the city.
Morsi scheduled the staggered, four-stage voting process to begin April 27 and end in June. The newly elected parliament would convene on July 6, according to a decree issued late Thursday night.
He hopes the election will end the political turmoil that has beset Egypt for the past two years, since the ouster of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. The upheaval has scared away foreign investors and dried up tourism, both crucial foreign currency earners that helped the government pay for subsidized goods needed by the poor for survival.
But Mohamed ElBaradei, who leads one of the main opposition groups, the 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."
The NSF accuses Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters of monopolizing power and reneging on campaign promises to set up an inclusive government that introduces far-reaching reforms.
The opposition has called for amending articles in a new constitution that passed in a nationwide referendum. It also demands the resignation of the current technocrat Cabinet appointed by Morsi that includes eight Brotherhood ministers and other Islamists.
Morsi took over as president in June 2012 with the help of some opposition groups and Islamists who voted against his rival, a former Mubarak-era prime minister. Morsi's popularity has since eroded due to power-grabbing decrees temporarily issued last year that allowed his supporters to rush the constitution to a nationwide vote before a high court packed with Mubarak appointees could disband the process.
The vote took place during massive street protests against Morsi and the Islamist-led body that drafted the charter. It passed by 64 percent of votes amid low turnout and a boycott by thousands of overseeing judges.
On the second anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising, anger spilled out onto the streets and violence again engulfed the nation. About 70 people died in a wave of protests, clashes and riots in the past four weeks, and more than half were killed in Port Said alone.
Factory workers, activists and laborers in Port Said have held street rallies that brought the city on the northern tip of the Suez Canal to a halt, although shipping in the international waterway has not been affected.
Port Said commentator Sayid Azab said the city opposes Morsi's timetable for the parliamentary vote.
"Everyone is rejecting the elections and asking how they can take place in the absence of stability," he said.
Civil disobedience in Port Said has stopped work at the foreign-run Suez Canal Container Terminal. Managing director Klaus Hol Laursan said 2,000 workers have been unable to reach the terminal for four days due to protesters blocking the street, and the army has been unable to help.
"We are, as a business, not part of the conflict. We are bystanders hurt by circumstances," he told The Associated Press. "In order to be able to attract business, we need stable productivity so we can help Egypt grow and recover its economy."
The political unrest has hit Egypt's foreign currency reserves, which have fallen 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 that would shore up confidence again in the country's economy and free up other loan requests. Insiders say talks have been prolonged because of Morsi's reluctance to implement unpopular austerity measures ahead of elections.
Abdullah Shehata, an economic expert with the Brotherhood, declined comment on when austerity measures could be implemented, but 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. "
In Cairo, the opposition party led by former Mubarak rival Ayman Nour said its offices were torched and stormed by masked gunmen Friday. Speaking to the state-run Ahram Arabic website, the group said the men stole documents and videotapes before setting it ablaze.
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party was undeterred by criticism of Morsi's election announcement. The party's deputy, Essam el-Erian, was quoted on the group's Facebook page as saying that he hopes the upcoming parliament will be "diverse" and include Islamists, liberals and leftists. He also warned against a boycott.
"Everyone understands the importance of this stage and that the absence of their voice is a big mistake and will mean a lengthy absence from parliament, its parties and its politics during this stage of building Egypt," he said.
The group has already been setting the stage for elections through outreach programs, including helping the poor receive subsidized bread that is often hard to find.
The Brotherhood and more conservative Salafis have grassroots support, partly through vast networks of charities that help the poor.
Competition among the various Islamist parties is expected to be fierce, particularly after signs of a rift between the Salafi Al-Nour and the Brotherhood began surfacing in recent weeks, including a public spat over credit for who organized a reconciliation meeting with liberal opposition figures.
The opposition says it does not want a repeat of the voting scenario in 2011, when parliamentary elections began as protesters were battling security forces to demand a timetable for presidential balloting and the end of military rule. More than 40 people were killed in those clashes, and many independent and liberal candidates withdrew from the race in protest.
The Brotherhood won nearly half the seats in what was the nation's first free election. The more conservative Salafis came in second, while secular and liberal groups trailed significantly. That parliament was disbanded on June 14, 2012, after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that a third of the chamber's members were elected illegally.
El-Erian said he expects Islamists to again win about 75 percent of the seats.
The staggered election will likely result in ballot fatigue for Egyptian voters who have already stood in line multiple times in the past two years for legislative and presidential elections that included runoffs, as well as two nationwide referendums.
According to Thursday's decree, Egypt's 27 provinces will be divided into four groups that will vote separately over two days in a period ending on June 27. This process is supposed to give the more than 50 million voters enough time to participate.
The first phase of the election takes place amid Palm Sunday and Easter for Egypt's minority Coptic Christians who tend to travel during the holidays and have consistently voted against the Muslim Brotherhood.
In addition, the country's highest court ruled this week that at least 10 articles in the election law were unconstitutional, and sent them to the upper house of parliament for amendment, including what it called the "arbitrary" drawing of districts that critics say favored the Brotherhood.
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 told the AP.
The unrest has swept over other provinces too, with diesel shortages in Alexandria and Assiut, as well as strikes in Mahalla.
Port Said protester Mohammed Manae signaled that a parliamentary election could mean more violence.
"We not only object to these elections, we will not let them happen," Manae said.
El Deeb reported from Port Said, Egypt. Mosaad el-Gohary in Port Said contributed to this story.