The Cairo offices of the U.S. National Democratic Institute. (AFP)
Egyptian authorities said the raids were conducted as part of an investigation into alleged foreign funding of the groups, many of which help train political parties to participate in the democratic process. But rights activists said the targeting of civil society groups is the latest ominous sign of Egypt's military rulers resisting transition to democratic governance while blaming others for their misrule.
"The United States is deeply concerned that Egyptian judicial and police officials raided the offices of a number of non-governmental organizations today," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at a press conference Thursday, Reuters reported.
"We call on the Egyptian government to immediately end the harassment of NGO staff, return all property and resolve this issue immediately," Nuland said.
Egyptian uniformed and plains-clothes police on Thursday stormed the Cairo offices of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, Germany-based Konrad Adenauer Siftung, the Arab Center for Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory. They seized documents, laptops and equipment in the raids, while isolating the NGOs staff in their offices, observers on the scenes and representatives of the organizations said.
Egypt's "public prosecutor has searched 17 civil society organisations, local and foreign, as part of the foreign funding case," Egypt's semi official MENA news agency cited the Egyptian prosecutor's office as saying, according to Reuters. "The search is based on evidence showing violation of Egyptian laws including not having permits."
Raided groups called the action unprecedented, comparing it to the authoritarian rule of Egypt's ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak.
"The raids today represent an escalation of repression unheard of even during the Mubarak regime," said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House, in a statement sent to Yahoo News. The actions are "the clearest indication yet" that Egypt's military rulers have "no intention of permitting the establishment of genuine democracy and [are] attempting to scapegoat civil society for its own abysmal failure to manage Egypt's transition effectively."
The "raid is confusing given that IRI was officially invited by the Government of Egypt to witness the people's assembly elections," IRI said in a statement sent to Yahoo News. "It is ironic that even during the Mubarak era, IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action."
Staff members of the raided organizations were "warned from using their cell phones, laptops and computers; and are being isolated from contact with the outside world," said Ehab Monir, executive secretary of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, in an alert sent to Yahoo News. "The storming of NGO offices is an unprecedented move in the recent history of Egyptian NGOs."
Middle East experts also noted the apparent hypocrisy of the prosecutor's rationale that the groups were allegedly being investigated for receiving foreign funding, given that a large chunk of the Egyptian government's budget comes from foreign governments, including $1.3 billion in mostly military aid from the United States.
"Egypt's military council accuses NGOs of foreign funding even though at least 20% of its budget - $1.3 billion - is foreign funded," Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, wrote on Twitter.
Freedom House called on the Obama administration to scrutinize U.S. military aid to Egypt, it said Thursday.
The State Department's Nuland noted that U.S. aid to Egypt is already facing new conditions from Congress. "We do have a number of new reporting and transparency requirements on funding to Egypt that we have to make to Congress," she said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate armed services panel and chairman of IRI, called the raids "unjustified."
"These abuses, together with increasingly violent crackdowns on peaceful Egyptian demonstrators in recent weeks, are reminiscent of the practices of the Mubarak regime," he said in a statement Thursday that noted his long ties with senior Egyptian military officials.
At least some of the organizations raided Thursday are apparently not officially registered as NGOs in Egypt, a technical violation of the law, sources told Yahoo News. While the groups faced obstacles to registering in the Mubarak era, some may want to avoid the restrictions entailed, including scrutiny that could come to local civil society and political groups they are working with that may be unregistered, the sources said.
Egypt has been ruled since Mubarak's ouster last February by a military council, which has been involved in increasingly violent clashes with protesters demanding transition to civilian rule. Video of Egyptian riot police viciously beating and partially stripping a women protester in Cairo this month caused domestic and international outrage.
Egypt is in the midst of parliamentary elections and is due to hold presidential elections next year.
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