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Egyptian forces raid offices of 17 nongovernmental organizations

This news story was published on December 29, 2011.
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By Jeffrey Fleishman and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Egyptian security forces on Thursday raided the offices of 17 nongovernmental organizations, including three U.S.-based agencies, as part of crackdown on foreign assistance that has drawn criticism from the West and threatened human rights groups and pro-democracy movements.

The move appeared part of a strategy to intimidate international organizations. The ruling military 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 away from its 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 pro-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 told 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 forces swept into offices, interrogated workers and seized computers across the country. Those targeted included the 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 during the administration of 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 a 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 NGO’s in the eyes of Egyptians,” said Awadi.

Relations between the ruling generals and the U.S., which provides $1.3 billion in aid a year to the Egypt’s military, have been strained in recent months even as Egypt is carrying out staggered rounds of parliamentary elections. The military’s recent crackdown on protests drew rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Egypt’s campaign to discredit nongovernmental organizations as treasonous, a strategy once used by Mubarak, began last 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 to blame outside intervention for the country’s mounting economic and social problems.

The National Democratic Institute said it was particularly disturbed that authorities had targeted local groups involved in observing and otherwise supporting the ongoing 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 on charges of killing five demonstrators during the rebellion that led to Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11. The court ruled that none of the defendants was at the scene when the slayings occurred.

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