ON THURSDAY, Egypt’s military regime undertook an act of repression that even former strongman Hosni Mubarak never dared to try. Police and troops raided 17 nongovernmental organization offices involved in promoting democracy and human rights — including those of the Washington-based Freedom House and U.S.-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI). According to statements by the American groups, police confiscated their equipment and documents, sealed their offices and provided no warrants.
The Egyptian MENA news agency subsequently reported that the raids were ordered by the state prosecutor as part of “the foreign funding case.” For some time, the regime has been claiming that it is illegal for NGOs to receive foreign monies unless they are registered with the government, which would then control the cash flow. But the law mandating this was passed by the Mubarak regime in 2002; the former president never ventured to enforce it. Until this week, IRI and NDI operated freely; they were training Egyptian political parties on how to participate in elections and were invited by the current government to observe the ongoing parliamentary voting.
Thursday’s raid consequently represents a frontal provocation by the ruling military council to the Obama administration, which has waffled between supporting a transition to democratic civilian rule in Egypt and appeasing the generals. The military is attempting to rally waning domestic support by blaming domestic disorder on sinister “foreign hands”; it is also seeking to destroy liberal, pro-democracy groups that have resisted its attempts to perpetuate its power indefinitely.
The campaign against foreign funding is a startling example of the military’s illogic and breathtaking arrogance. The premise is that civilian groups that receive a few million dollars in U.S. or European funding are traitorous — while the military is justified in accepting $1.3 billion in annual U.S. subsidies. Also unquestioned is the substantial funding that reportedly flows from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab states to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, which mounted by far the best-organized campaigns in this month’s elections.
The Obama administration may have inadvertently encouraged the military council to believe it could get away with this repression by stoutly resisting initiatives in Congress to link U.S. military aid to a democratic transition. On Thursday, the State Department protested the raids, saying that they were “inconsistent” with U.S.-Egyptian relations; a statement called on the regime “to immediately end the harassment of NGO staff, return all property and resolve this issue.”
That may or may not produce a retreat by the generals. Either way, it is past time for the administration — and Congress — to stop treating aid to the Egyptian military as inviolate and related only to peace with Israel. The military must get the message that continued funding will depend on whether a full transition to civilian democratic rule takes place in the coming year. That means, among other things, an immediate end to the harassment of pro-democracy and human rights groups.