IN THE 11 June elections to Egypt's Shura Council (the upper house of parliament), the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the country's largest opposition group by far, failed to win a single seat. The officially banned group had fielded 19 independent candidates.
The ruling National Democratic Party won 97% of the 71 seats decided in the first round of the poll, in a vote distinguished by its miserable turnout of less than 10%.
While NDP Secretary General Safwat El Sherif claimed the result showed "the confidence people have in the party's candidates", opposition supporters and independent election monitors lined up to point out the "irregularities" in the vote. Police intervention, bribery and vote-stuffing were all reported.
Notwithstanding the affront to democracy that such vote-rigging entails, the Shura Council in itself doesn't matter much. Despite recent enhancements to its legislative role, it is much the less powerful element in a power-less parliament.
What does matter, and with import far beyond a single minor election, is the range of obstacles that have been deployed in recent months by the Egyptian Government against its most powerful opposition group. The Brotherhood is now facing one of its toughest confrontations with the regime since foundation in 1928.
The obstacles range from subtle manipulations of Egypt's constitution, which were approved by a poorly-attended referendum in March, to a campaign of arrests and harassment by the state security apparatus that has drawn the ire of both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Since mid-2006 over 1,000 members have been arrested, most of whom were detained for several months without charge or trial, and then released. This number does not include those arrested in the weeks immediately preceding the Shura vote: security forces said they had arrested around 400, while the Brotherhood claims the number was over 1,000.
In addition, at least 33 members are currently undergoing a closed military trial on charges of membership of a banned organisation and funding terrorism. The defendants include the Brotherhood's third-in-command and chief fundraiser, Khayrat Al Shater.
More important even than the ongoing security operation against the group is the series of constitutional amendments. A number of these amendments give any political or security campaign against an Islamist political organisation legitimacy according to the letter of the law.
As such, they seem tailor-made to...