CAIRO (AP) — A split erupted Thursday in Egypt's main liberal opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, over whether to go ahead with a boycott of parliamentary elections or reverse course and participate.
A joint statement indicating cancellation of the boycott brought a quick retort from other leaders, insisting that their participating in the election was still conditioned on the government's agreement to a list of demands.
Voting for a new parliament is expected later this year, dependent on approval of a new election law.
The infighting typified the fractured state of opponents of Egypt's Islamist-led government. Broken up into more than a dozen factions, parties and movements, the liberal and secular forces have fared poorly against the better-organized Islamists since the overthrow of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Besides taking the presidency after the liberal movements failed to coalesce behind a single candidate, Islamist parties, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's party, won three-fourths of the seats in parliament in an election in late 2011. The lower house was later dissolved by court order on a technicality over election procedures.
Appearing to learn from past failures, opposition parties formed the National Salvation Front, an umbrella group headed by top politicians including Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, but the parties in the bloc maintained their separate agendas, identities and policies.
The Front appeared in danger of disintegrating on Thursday. One liberal party official predicted that the bloc would fall apart as the election date nears, succumbing to infighting over seats, policies and personal disputes. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
The drama began with a statement Thursday. The bloc said that "participation in elections is a national right which the Front is preparing for." An opposition leader, Mohammed Aboul Ghar of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said appeals from opposition members led to dropping the boycott.
"Of course, there is change of position. Before we were calling for boycott, but now we are saying we are preparing for the vote," Aboul Ghar said. "We are telling all our members to start campaigning."
Another opposition official, Khaled Dawoud, said the opposite.
"There is no change of position. We are not going to participate unless (our) conditions are met first," said Dawoud, a member of ElBaradei's Al-Dustor Party.
Another key element of the Front, the Popular Current, headed by former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, also backed a continued boycott. "There is nothing new to change our position," said spokesman Hossam Mounes.
Last week, Egypt's Islamist-dominated Shura Council, the upper house of parliament now entrusted with legislation until elections are held, approved a revised version of the law organizing the country's parliamentary elections.
The election was supposed to be held in April, but a court ruling suspended it, saying the law must be reviewed first by the Supreme Constitutional Court. That body had asked for amendments to the earlier draft.
Morsi has said he expects the elections to be held in October.
The opposition bloc has demanded that Islamist President Mohammed Morsi appoint neutral ministers to replace Brotherhood-linked officials with control over the election process, rewrite the election law to eliminate sections that appear to favor the Islamists and replace the chief prosecutor, whose appointment was seen as part of a Morsi power grab. They also demanded that Morsi carry out his promise to work on amending the constitution.
The Brotherhood and its ultraconservative allies counter that they are the best organized political groups that enjoy wide popular support, and the opposition call for a boycott is meant only to evade a clear defeat in the upcoming elections.
ElBaradei has long pushed for a boycott of elections, charging that Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has manipulated the electoral system to ensure its continued success.
In its statement, the Front underlined its goals, insisting it "continues to struggle to create essential conditions for elections to be an expression of popular will, not falsifying it," calling for "free and fair elections to rescue the nation and put an end to the continuous slide" that has harmed the middle class and the poor, a reference to Egypt's crumbling economy.
The period since Mubarak was deposed has been marred by constant unrest and a reeling economy, two elements that are clearly linked.
In the latest outbreak, security forces exchanged gunfire with armed protesters in a southern Egyptian village after police shot dead a suspected arms dealer inside a police station, according to a security official and witnesses at the scene of the clashes. Police in the village of Abnounb in Assiut, 320 kilometers (200 miles) south of Cairo, fired tear gas at protesters, including relatives of the slain man, who blocked off the station and fired at police.
Also Thursday, Mubarak was transferred from a military hospital to Tora prison in southern Cairo. The Cairo appellate court on Wednesday set May 11 for the resumption of Mubarak's retrial in the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the uprising that deposed him.