Wall Street Journal Covers Raid of IRI’s Offices in Egypt

Egyptian Forces Storm NGOs
The Wall Street Journal
By Matt Bradley

CAIRO — Egyptian security forces seized computers, printers and documents from offices of at least 17 human-rights organizations Thursday, including three U.S.-based groups, adding new tensions to fraying ties between Egypt’s interim military leadership and its allies in Washington.

Egypt’s military leadership has repeatedly blamed the country’s continuing violent protests on what they call a foreign-borne conspiracy aimed at creating chaos and undermining the Egyptian state. Thursday’s raids appear to have backed the accusations with action.

Special forces units of the Egyptian military, accompanied by state prosecutors and uniformed and plain-clothes police officers, searched non-governmental organization offices in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. As they seized documents and hardware from NGO offices, security officers forbade the organizations’ employeees from leaving or making phone calls.

Prosecutors declined to discuss any evidence or suspicions upon which they were acting. But MENA, the Egyptian state news agency, said prosecutors were seeking evidence of foreign funding. In Egypt, such funding must be approved by the government.

The raids, particularly those on American pro-democracy and human-rights organizations, mark a significant deterioration in the relationship between Washington and one of its closest military allies in the Middle East. The U.S. government has supported Egypt’s military since the 1970s, with $1.3 billion in annual funding that now amounts to an estimated 20% of its budget.

The U.S. State Department said it is “deeply concerned” over the raids.

“This action is inconsistent with the bilateral cooperation we have had over many years,” State Department Victoria Nuland said in a statement, adding that State Department officials had been in touch with the NGOs and Egyptian diplomats and government. “We call on the Egyptian government to resolve this issue immediately and to end harassment of NGO staff as well as return all property.”

The raids may prompt Washington to reevaluate its relationship with an interim military regime whose nearly 11 months as de facto head of state has been plagued by allegations of human-rights abuses and many of the same limited freedoms that had characterized nearly 30 years of rule by former President Hosni Mubarak.

Ms. Nuland declined to say how they might affect relations between the U.S. and Egypt’s military government. But she reiterated that the U.S.’s financial aid to the military is now subject to tighter congressional control. “The Egyptian government is well aware of that, and certainly needs to be aware of that,” she said.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, which has governed Egypt since Mr. Mubarak stepped down amid street protests in February, didn’t comment on the raids.

But the SCAF and the military-appointed government have blamed “foreign hands” for inciting protests this year aimed at the ruling council of generals. Some analysts believe the military regime hopes to use the specter of foreign interference—a fear that autocrats have incultated in Egyptians for generations—as a scapegoat to discredit dissenting voices.

Mr. Mubarak had long complained about U.S. funding for Egyptian human-rights NGOs. His regime, however, didn’t raid the Egyptian offices of American organizations, according workers of those offices.

“We were expecting this procedure before the revolution. But when it happens after the revolution, that raises a lot of questions,” said Nasser Amin, the head of the Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, a Cairo-based organization whose offices were raided on Thursday afternoon. “To storm with that severity into an organization that defends the independence of the judiciary, with special forces and at this time, is a very strange procedure.”

According to the U.S. State Department website, the U.S. funds Mr. Amin’s group through its Middle East Partnership Initiative. The group’s website says it receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by Congress. Mr. Amin wasn’t immediately available to comment on the funding.

Other organizations targeted by prosecutors were Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Those three groups have headquarters in Washington and receive funding from Congress to encourage democracy-building throughout the world.

“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 in an emailed statement. The group’s Cairo office was raided Thursday, along with its offices in the coastal city of Alexandria and the Upper Egyptian city of Assiut.

NDI receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and the National Endowment for Democracy, according to the statement. It is a training organization that provides expertise in civil-society development, voter education and political party training to 49 of Egypt’s nearly 60 political parties, across the ideological spectrum.

The NDI has operated in Egypt since 2005, said Julie Hughes, the director of its Egypt office. She said the group applied for an official NGO registration that year but that the government hasn’t yet extended official accreditation.

Ms. Hughes said that when she inquired about the application status in May, officials told her review procedures were pending. The Egyptian government authorized the group to help observe Egypt’s ongoing parliamentary elections.

It was common for the Mubarak government to delay official accreditation for foreign NGOs and media organizations, a move that observers said allowed the government to halt the groups’ operations when it saw fit.

Shaimaa Fawaz, a translator at Mr. Amin’s Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, said prosecutors from the Ministry of the Judiciary, escorted by uniformed special forces officers, rang the office’s bell at around noon on Thursday. When employees asked to see a search warrant, the prosecutors replied that they were entitled to search the premises without one, Ms. Fawaz said.

“They found an old copy of a check of one of our employees with $6,000 written on it, so one of the prosecutors held it and laughed and said ‘is that your foreign funds,'” said Ms. Fawaz. The prosecutors confiscated eight computers and files dating back to 1997, she said.

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