CAIRO – Egyptian security forces raided 17 offices of human rights and and non-governmental groups on Thursday in a move that has triggered widespread fear and condemnation among pro-democracy groups and activists.
Three American groups, Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, were among the organizations whose offices were raided.
The United States said the harassment should stop immediately and hinted it could review its $1.3 billion in military aid if the raids continue. “This action is inconsistent with the bilateral cooperation we have had over many years,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
Police and military forces stormed the offices, confiscating computers, seizing papers and files, and taking down the names of Egyptians working for the organizations.
According to judicial sources, the raids were ordered by Egypt’s general prosecutor’s office and were carried out by inspectors from his office with the assistance of military forces and the police.
Judicial sources tell NBC News the raid was part of an ongoing investigation based on complaints that human rights organizations and prominent activists were receiving foreign funding without the appropriate permits and approval from the government, a crime under Egyptian law.
The Arab Network for Human Rights Information quickly denounced the raids, saying they were aimed at “terrorizing activists and organizations to stop their work in fighting against abuse and torture”. The network added they and other non-governmental groups feared such a crackdown was imminent and had prepared for it.
“Even Mubarak’s regime did not dare carry out such practices before the revolution,” it added.
The Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession said its office was one of the 17 raided, and that military forces confiscated documents and computers while preventing its staff from leaving during the raid.
Some rights groups have supported recent protests demanding that the army, in power since February when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, hand power swiftly to elected civilians. The army has pledged to step aside by mid-2012.
Clashes between protesters and soldiers in Cairo earlier this month killed 17 people.
Two of the U.S. groups raided are loosely associated with the U.S. Democratic and Republican political parties. They say they take a neutral political stance, fostering democracy in Egypt by training members of nascent parties in democratic processes.
“The National Democratic Institute has been training new parties … in how to participate in elections,” a leading member of a liberal party told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “This has been with the full knowledge of authorities and was not clandestine.”
The NDI issued a statement noting that some of the groups “are working on observation efforts for the country’s ongoing parliamentary elections. The third and final round for those polls is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.”
“Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt’s historic transition sends a disturbing signal,” said NDI President Kenneth Wollack.
The International Republican Institute, in its own statement, noted that “it is ironic that even during the Mubarak era IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action.”
Freedom House President David Kramer called the raids a sign the military “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.”
Reuters contributed to this report.Top