Egyptian security forces on Thursday raided the offices of 17 nongovernmental organizations, including three U.S.-based agencies, as part of a crackdown on foreign assistance that has drawn criticism from the West and threatened human rights groups and pro-democracy movements.
The move appeared to be part of a strategy to intimidate international organizations. The ruling military council has repeatedly blamed "foreign hands" for exploiting Egypt's political and economic turmoil. But activists said the army was using the ruse of foreign intervention to stoke nationalism and deflect criticism of abuses.
The military's actions angered Washington at a time the White House is pressuring Egypt to respect civil liberties. But the Egyptian military has been increasingly agitated by democracy advocates and protests that have gripped the nation. Clashes last week between demonstrators and soldiers ended in the deaths of at least 15 people.
"This action is inconsistent with the bilateral cooperation we have had over many years," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a news briefing after the raids. "We call on the Egyptian government to immediately end the harassment of NGO staff, return all property and resolve this issue immediately."
Egyptian soldiers and black-clad police officers swept into offices, interrogated workers and seized computers across the country. Those targeted included U.S. groups the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, which are funded by Congress to monitor elections and promote democracy overseas.
"The public prosecutor has searched 17 civil society organizations, local and foreign, as part of the foreign funding investigation," the official news agency MENA cited the prosecutor's office as saying. "The search is based on evidence showing violations of Egyptian laws, including not having permits."
Freedom House, which said it had filed papers to officially register three days earlier, condemned the actions as a sign that Egypt's government has become more repressive since last winter's revolution overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.
The raids were part of "an intensive campaign by the Egyptian government to dismantle civil society through a politically motivated legal campaign aimed at preventing 'illegal foreign funding' of civil society operations in Egypt," said Freedom House President David J. Kramer, who was a senior State Department official in the administration of then-President George W. Bush.
"It is the clearest indication yet that the [ruling] 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 to manage Egypt's transition effectively," he said.
Tarek Awadi, a human rights activist, said he witnessed the raid at the Future House for Legal Studies in Cairo. He said a police official in the search held up an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary, saying it was evidence the organization was engaged in sabotage and hidden agendas.
"I think authorities have carefully chosen a number of organizations, some of whom are Egyptian or American or European, to defame all NGOs in the eyes of Egyptians," Awadi said.
Relations between the ruling generals and the United States, which provides $1.3 billion in aid a year to the Egyptian military, have been strained in recent months even as Egypt conducts staggered rounds of parliamentary elections. The military's recent crackdown on protests drew a rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Egypt's campaign to discredit nongovernmental organizations as treasonous, a strategy once used by Mubarak, began this summer. Military leaders accused activist groups of relying on foreign expertise and funding to undermine the Egyptian state. This tactic resonated in the provinces as the military sought to blame outside intervention for the country's mounting economic and social problems.
"Human rights organizations are the guardians of the nascent freedom," Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and possible presidential candidate, wrote on Twitter. "Efforts to suffocate them will be a major setback and will surely backfire."
The National Democratic Institute said it was particularly disturbed that authorities had targeted local groups involved in observing and otherwise supporting the parliamentary elections.
"Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt's historic transition sends a disturbing signal," Ken Wollack, the group's president, said in a statement.
The raids came the same day an Egyptian court cleared five policemen of charges of killing five demonstrators during the rebellion that led to Mubarak's ouster Feb. 11. The court ruled that none of the defendants were at the scene when the slayings occurred.
That decision is also likely to further anger activists. More than 800 protesters were killed during last winter's uprising and authorities have been slow in bringing police and security officers to justice. Mubarak's trial on charges that he was complicit in the deaths of protesters resumed this week after a three-month adjournment.
Fleishman reported from Cairo and Richter from Washington. News assistant Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.