New York Times Continues Coverage of Raid of IRI’s Offices in Egypt
WASHINGTON — Egypt’s military rulers privately signaled a retreat on Friday in a crackdown on organizations that promote democracy and human rights, senior American officials said, even as the authorities in Cairo tried to discredit the organizations with accusations of suspicious activity.
The country’s de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and other senior officials pledged to halt the raids against the organizations, to allow them to reopen their offices and to return documents, computers and other property seized on Thursday, the American officials said.
Field Marshal Tantawi offered the assurances during a 25-minute telephone conversation on Friday with the American defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta. The conversation capped a flurry of diplomatic protests over the shutdown of the groups and unusually sharp public criticism from the United States and Europe.
While the Egyptian government did not confirm that it would halt the raids, the swift, high-level intervention by Obama administration officials in Cairo and in Washington and by European officials underscored the seriousness of the diplomatic affront the raids had caused and their potential to sour relations significantly if they continued.
For the first time in decades, the fate of American foreign aid to Egypt, a total of $1.3 billion annually, hovered over the administration’s deliberations. Because of a new Congressional restriction that requires the State Department to certify that Egypt’s government is committed to democracy, no money has been sent since the new fiscal year began in October.
The certification, not expected before January at the earliest, would be hard to justify in the wake of the crackdown by the military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, on as many as 10 local and international democracy-building organizations. The groups raided Thursday include at least four American-financed organizations, among them the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which have close ties to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“Raids on the very organizations working to support that transition belie the SCAF’s promises, and the promise of a democratic future for Egypt,” Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said in a statement on Friday.
The raids were the latest in a series of actions by Egypt’s military rulers that have raised questions about their commitment to a transition to democracy after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
The authorities have said that the raids were part of an investigation into illegal foreign financing of nongovernmental groups, but local activists accused the government of trying to stifle criticism amid increasing calls for the military to cede power to civilian leaders.
The government began leaking ostensibly damning but unverifiable details about its investigations on Friday.
State media reported that the raids had turned up evidence that one unnamed organization received $100 million in unauthorized foreign funds and used it to pay 750 illiterate people and laborers $200 a day, a significant sum here. The implication was that they were paid to take part in protests against the military government.
A coalition of 30 human rights groups that were not among those raided denounced what it called “a smear campaign” intended to protect the authorities under the pretext of protecting Egyptian sovereignty. “We are reporting on their abuses,” said Ghada Shabandar, a human rights advocate who is part of the coalition. “And one way of cracking down on civil society is by saying we are all on the payroll.”
In addition to the American organizations, the targets of the raids included Egyptian groups that promote civil society and a German foundation, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Germany’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Berlin on Friday and demanded an investigation.
The foundation’s chairman, Hans-Gert Pöttering, a former president of the European Parliament, said in a statement that armed police units and Egyptian prosecutors confiscated all the computers in the foundation’s Cairo office and numerous documents. The foundation, one of Germany’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations, has operated in Egypt for more than 30 years.
“These events irritate us greatly, and I call on the Egyptian authorities responsible to restore the working capacities of our office in Cairo,” Mr. Pöttering said.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, issued a statement on Friday noting her “great concern” over the raids and calling on “Egyptian authorities to resolve the current situation and to allow civil society organizations to continue their work in support of Egypt’s transition.”
Along with Mr. Panetta, the American ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, held discussions with “senior members” of the ruling military council and received assurances that the organizations would be able to resume work, according to a statement by the State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland.
Mr. Panetta “expressed his deep concern about the raids” and “conveyed his appreciation for Field Marshal Tantawi’s prompt decision to halt the raids,” a Pentagon spokesman, George Little, said.
The organizations’ future work remained unclear. Ms. Patterson agreed to work with the Egyptians “to resolve the underlying issues” related to the work of the American organizations, the State Department said. Under a Mubarak-era law that the military rulers have kept, virtually every human rights group in Egypt is technically illegal, even if many are tolerated.
They are required to get licenses that are almost never issued, and the vast majority depend almost entirely on foreign financing, which is tightly regulated.
In Cairo, people who worked at the American-backed groups said that they had heard from the embassy that their confiscated property would soon be returned, and that they could soon be put on a path to a legal status.
Steven Lee Myers reported from Washington, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, Nicholas Kulish from Berlin, and Mayy El Sheikh from Cairo.Top