CAIRO — Egyptian authorities stormed the offices of three U.S. democracy-building organizations and at least three other nonprofit groups Thursday in a dramatic escalation of a crackdown by the military-led government that could imperil its relations with the United States.
The move represented the most definitive sign to date that Egypt’s military intends to run the country’s post-revolutionary transition on its own terms and without interference from Washington, its biggest benefactor.
The Obama administration demanded an immediate explanation from Egyptian officials and said the computers and other items taken during the raids ought to be returned promptly. Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department, warned that economic aid could be withheld if Cairo’s leaders do not respond appropriately.
“We were very clear that this issue needs immediate attention, and we look forward to hearing back from the Egypt government,” Nuland told reporters. She called the raids “inconsistent with the bilateral cooperation we have had over many years.”
Referring to recently approved congressional legislation tying U.S. aid to democratic progress in Egypt, Nuland said the country’s ruling military council “needs to be aware of this.”
The coordinated raids Thursday appeared to reflect an effort by the embattled military chiefs to prove that foreign organizations have been funding and orchestrating the recent waves of unrest in which scores have been killed and hundreds wounded.
Egypt’s military leaders have shown little tolerance for criticism since they pushed President Hosni Mubarak aside amid nationwide demonstrations against his rule in February. They have arrested bloggers and tried thousands of activists and others in military court. They have also sought to absolve themselves of blame for the country’s recent problems by hinting vaguely at “foreign hands” and have demonized civil society organizations that accept U.S. and other foreign assistance.
Ironically, Egypt’s military is by far the country’s largest recipient of U.S. aid, receiving about $1.3 billion a year. The United States budgeted a fraction of that sum — $65 million — for pro-
democracy aid to Egypt this year.
Activists described the raids Thursday as the biggest crackdown on civil society in recent Egyptian history, noting that Mubarak had quietly tolerated many nongovernmental organizations during the latter part of his three-decade reign.
Among the Cairo offices raided Thursday were those of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House. Security forces confiscated computers, cellphones and documents. NDI’s offices in Alexandria and Assiut also were raided. Security forces stormed Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation and at least two Egyptian nongovernmental organizations: the Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory.
NDI and IRI are democracy-building organizations backed by the U.S. government that operate globally. Both have been monitoring Egypt’s ongoing, multi-phase parliamentary elections. Freedom House advocates for democracy, political freedoms and human rights. All three organizations issued harshly worded condemnations of the raids.
“These actions come in the context of an intensive campaign by the Egyptian Government to dismantle civil society through a politically-motivated legal campaign,” Freedom House President David J. Kramer said in a statement. “It is the clearest indication yet that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has no intention of permitting the establishment of genuine democracy and is attempting to scapegoat civil society for its own abysmal failure.”
In all, at least 17 raids were conducted simultaneously on orders of the Justice Ministry in a crackdown on “illegal foreign funding” and other unspecified “crimes,” the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.
In at least one case, an NGO worker was arrested. The offices were sealed off and closed, at least temporarily.
U.S. officials and Egypt’s ruling generals have been feuding for months over the funding of NGOs. Egyptian authorities want to control the distribution of cash to civil groups. Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz el-Gendy recently accused local NGOs of taking foreign money and using it to sow unrest during a period when the military was being criticized for using deadly force against protesters.
U.S. officials said the raids could increase congressional resistance to providing military and economic assistance to a country that is among the top recipients of American aid. A number of congressional leaders were threatening to cut funding to Egypt after a mob attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September and amid lingering questions about the Egyptian military’s commitment to democracy.
The State Department has previously criticized attacks on nongovernmental groups inside Egypt, but the targeting of U.S.-backed organizations was viewed with particular alarm. Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said the groups attacked Thursday were seeking to foster the development of democratic institutions and traditions and had been “very open and transparent with Egyptian authorities at all levels.”
On Thursday night, the director of NDI’s office in Egypt, Julie Hughes, was at a police station filing a report and trying to recover computers and other items seized from the group’s offices, said Les Campbell, NDI’s director for Middle East and North Africa programs.
“I see this as a high-stakes negotiation. The Egyptian government is looking for ways to get assistance, but on their terms,” Campbell said.
He added that NDI had been summoned to the Justice Ministry for questioning and that the group was being transparent with the government about its operations. NDI opened an office in Egypt in 2005.
“Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt’s historic transition sends a disturbing signal,” NDI President Kenneth Wollack said in a statement.
Helmy el-Rawy, executive director of the Egyptian Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, said four vehicles with police and military commandos rolled up to the group’s office and posted men with AK-47 assault rifles outside. Rawy said the security forces confiscated all documents and computers and arrested an economics researcher, Ahmed Ali, the only person in the office.
“This is a new attack on freedoms in Egypt, and it targets the mouths trying to reveal the military council’s violations,” Rawy said.
The Justice Ministry began a probe into foreign funding of civic organizations about four months ago, focusing on at least 39 groups and activists, according to reports leaked to local media outlets.
If the organizations under investigation are found at fault, they could be closed or fined and their members could face jail time, said Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“We’ve never had such a broad-based investigation into the human rights and NGO community,” Morayef said. “The entire independent civil society could be shut down.”
Warrick reported from Washington. Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.