Egyptian security forces today raided the offices of 17 NGOs (right), including three U.S.-based groups, signalling a renewed crackdown on foreign assistance and the country’s pro-democracy movements.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces council has blamed “foreign hands” for fomenting unrest and the government has initiated an inquiry into foreign-funded civil society groups.
“The public prosecutor has searched 17 civil society organisations, local and foreign, as part of the foreign funding case,” the official MENA news agency cited the prosecutor’s office as saying. “The search is based on evidence showing violation of Egyptian laws including not having permits.”
Police raided the offices of the Egyptian Arab Center for the Independence of Judiciary and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, as well as the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House.
“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 Cairo-based legal center. “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.”
Four vehicles full of police and military commandos outside the BHRO offices and posted men with AK-47s outside, said BHRO’s executive director Helmy El-Rawy Rawy.
“A force of police and a prosecutor raided the center and the only employee who attended today was held inside before the whole center was shut down,” BHRO’s executive director Helmy El-Rawy told Daily News Egypt.
“The employee [researcher Ahmed Aly] was held inside for a couple of hours and his mobile phone was switched off,” El-Rawy said. The center has been summoned to appear before an investigating judge at the Ministry of Justice on January 1.
“This is a new attack on freedoms in Egypt, and it targets the mouths trying to reveal the military council’s violations,” Rawy said.
Human rights activist Tarek Awadi, who observed the raid on the Cairo-based Future House for Legal Studies, said a police official held up an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary, the LA Times reports, as evidence the group 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.
Human rights groups say the military – which receives $1.3 billion in US aid each year, 20% of its total budget – is using the ruse of external intervention to divert attention from its failings.
“This is a campaign the military council has launched to defame and stigmatize activists, rights groups and the various forces that have participated in the making of the January 25 revolution,” said 27 civil society groups in a joint statement.
The SCAF’s actions were “unprecedented even in the era of Mubarak and aimed to cover the failures of the military council in its management of the transitional period.”
“This looks like a campaign against human rights defenders,” said leading rights activist Negad al-Borai. “For this to happen after what we call the ‘revolution’, I am astonished.”
“Today’s unjustified acts represent a long list of legal violations,” said Hafez Abu Seada, director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, noting that the authorities failed to detail the seized items, a familiar Mubarak-era tactics, allowing them to “fabricate any evidence and announce finding it among what they confiscated.”
The raids are the latest manifestation of the military’s campaign to stifle pro-democracy voices, activists suggest.
“This is a campaign that has been in the making for a while,” said human rights lawyer Gamal Eid. “The campaign will escalate to silence all the voices that have criticized violations by the military.”
Egyptian activists defended the US-based groups, noting that democracy assistance groups provide training and advice to emerging parties from across the political spectrum.
“The National Democratic Institute has been training new parties … in how to participate in elections,” a leading member of a liberal party told Al-Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“This has been with the full knowledge of authorities and was not clandestine.”
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was “very concerned” and called on the authorities to end the “harassment” of NGO activists. “This is not appropriate in the current environment,” she said, adding that senior US officials express their concern over the raids to Egypt’s military leaders.
“We believe that these NGOs are there to support the democratic process. We have been very open and transparent with Egyptian authorities at all levels, particularly about the operating procedures and policies of NDI, IRI and other international … NGOs that we support,” she said, hinting that the raids could imperil further US aid to Egypt’s military.
“We do have a number of new reporting and transparency requirements on funding to Egypt that we have to make to Congress,” Nuland said. “The Egyptian government is well aware of that and it certainly needs to be aware of that in the context of how quickly this issue gets resolved.”
The raids appear to be part of a power-play on the part of the military, activists suggest.
“I see this as a high-stakes negotiation. The Egyptian government is looking for ways to get assistance, but on their terms,” said Les Campbell, NDI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.
NDI was “deeply troubled” by the raids on its offices in Cairo, Alexandria and Assiut, it said in a statement, noting that police seized “NDI’s equipment and documents, sealed the office, and provided no warrant or explanation for their actions.”
“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.
About 14 members of the security forces entered NDI’s offices, said Julie Hughes, the group’s Cairo Director.
“They came in and asked all of us to gather together in a room, to leave the laptops on our desks, and open and accessible,” she told the BBC. “They went around the room from computer to computer looking through files and then gathering up those computers, and then about four and a half hours later they left.”
An NDI associate told CNN that the officers who raided the Cairo offices “took everything, every shred of paper, computers, personal laptops.”
He added that NDI had been summoned to the Ministry of Justice for questioning and the group was being transparent with the government about its operations. NDI opened an office in Egypt in 2005.
“Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt’s historic transition sends a disturbing signal,” NDI’s Wollack said in a statement.
NDI has provided training to members of 49 of Egypt’s 60-odd political parties, for which it 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.
The regime’s actions are a further indication of the regime’s illiberal drift, say Egyptian activists.
“[Former President Hosni] Mubarak’s regime did not dare to undertake such practices prior to the uprising,” said a statement from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. The authorities are “aiming to intimidate activists and rights advocates, gag their mouths and freeze their activities in support of human rights and against repression and torture”.
Nobel peace laureate and Egyptian reformist Mohamed ElBaradei predicted that efforts to stifle new-found political freedoms would backfire.
“Human rights organisations are the guardians of nascent freedom. Efforts to suffocate them will be a major setback,” he tweeted.
“I believe SCAF is trying to find some scapegoat [for their record)," said a human rights activist. "Targeting civil society was a technique used by Mubarak, so it really is reminiscent of the worst tactics of the Mubarak era."
The Washington-based IRI said it was "dismayed and disappointed by these actions," describing the raid as "confusing" because the government had officially invited it to observe the recent elections.
"IRI has been working with Egyptians since 2005; it is ironic that even during the Mubarak era IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action," the group said.
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.
"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.