CAIRO — By storming the offices of international and domestic pro-democracy groups Thursday, Egypt’s military rulers took a perilous gamble: cracking down on dissent ahead of a crucial transition to elected governance at the risk of alienating their most important benefactor: the United States.
But faced with a sharp reaction from Washington, the ruling generals appeared to retreat Friday. They promised the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, that the raids on international organizations would stop and that confiscated property would be returned immediately, the State Department said. Yet, the offices of three raided American organizations remained closed Friday.
“We’re getting mixed messages from the authorities,” said Leslie Campbell, regional director of Middle East and North Africa programs for the National Democratic Institute, one of the U.S. democracy-building groups shut down Thursday.
The coordinated and unprecedented raids on at least 17 offices belonging to seven civil society organizations, including the American groups, represented an escalation of an effort by the military rulers to suppress growing dissent. The effort appears aimed at heading off what they fear could become a second revolt when Egyptians mark the Jan. 25 anniversary of the start of the uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
“They’re constructing a narrative about what’s going on in the country to support their moves and to try to build support in the run-up to Jan. 25, to quash potential serious dissent,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York-based Century Foundation. “They think they are untouchable . . . but the patience of the international community is not going to be unlimited.”
For decades, the military chiefs have gone unchallenged by Washington and the Egyptian population. They collect $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, ensuring that they honor a peace treaty with Israel. They are estimated to control somewhere between 5 and 45 percent of the economy without public scrutiny.
Analysts say the generals appear to be worried about losing control and being subjected to oversight.
One Washington expert said the raids on the U.S. pro-democracy groups marked a “moment of truth” for the Obama administration. The military rulers were acting as though democracy promotion marked the biggest threat to their rule, said Michele Dunne, a former National Security Council staffer who now heads the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“If the Egyptian military is not allowing a real democratic transition to civilian rule, if it is harassing civil society, and if it is trying to prevent the United States from funding civil society groups, the time has come to suspend the military aid until things improve,” she said. “In the end, the Egyptian military can do what it likes inside the country — I don’t think the U.S. is going to invade — but at a minimum we can stop funding it.”
The generals have banked on the notion that Washington continues to look at Egypt primarily through one lens: the security of Israel. They also believe that the West sees them as a counterweight to Islamists who are winning so far in multi-phased parliamentary elections, analysts said.
“Unfortunately it’s the Israel card that trumps everything else,” said Khaled Fahmy, a historian at the American University in Cairo. “The army is effectively promising impotency and are rewarded for it. They are paid not to fight. This is the main prism through which U.S. foreign policy looks at this region, and the high brass of the Egyptian military knows this.”
Since the spring, the military chiefs have allowed or ordered major crackdowns on protesters that have left as many as 100 people dead, and they have sought to enshrine their powers in a new Egyptian constitution but so far have failed. Now the generals seem to be using civil society groups as scapegoats, accusing them of using foreign funds to support nefarious efforts to destroy Egypt.
“This is an internal judicial issue,” said a military official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “We are applying law against the organizations that break it.... Please don’t make this bigger than it is.”
But civil society leaders were defiant Friday, slamming Egypt’s military rulers for attempting to shut down human rights and advocacy groups and accusing them of using tactics from the Mubarak era to throttle an unfinished revolution. Twenty-eight rights groups signed a statement accusing the military of taking vengeance on organizations that participated in the uprising against Mubarak.
By raiding the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House — all Washington-based and funded in part by the U.S. government — as well as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer foundation, the military angered American and European leaders. The Obama administration warned that economic aid could be withheld unless authorities returned seized equipment and stopped harassing the organizations.
“No one really believed us,” said Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “This action proved that this is a true campaign against all the actors” involved in the uprising last winter.
In Berlin, German officials summoned the Egyptian ambassador to protest the raids. The U.N. human rights office called on Egypt’s rulers to “carry out their important work without undue influence” and criticized the “unnecessarily heavy-handed measures,” according to the Associated Press.
Egyptian presidential hopeful and revolutionary favorite Mohamed ElBaradei condemned the raids, saying efforts to suppress human rights groups would be “a major setback” and would “surely backfire.”
Warrick reported from Washington.