Egyptian security forces stormed the offices of 17 human rights organizations on Thursday in Cairo, including the offices of three U.S.-funded groups promoting democracy. Heavily armed men wearing the black uniforms of the central security police targeted the offices of the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House, all Washington-based organizations, as well as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer foundation and at least 13 Egyptian non-governmental organizations, according to the state news agency MENA.
“I really have no idea why they are holding us inside and confiscating our personal laptops,” tweeted Hana el-Hattab, an NDI staffer. In other tweets she wrote: “I was on the balcony, dude with machine gun came up and told us to go in and locked it … we asked if they had a search warrant, they said the person who issues warrants is in building & doesn’t need to issue one for himself. They’re even taking history books from people’s bags.”
The men tore through boxes, hauled away files and computers and prevented employees from leaving. Ultimately, they sealed the doors with red wax, effectively shuttering the groups’ activities in the middle of Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.
The raids appear to be an attempt to stoke nationalism at a time when the country’s ruling military council has repeatedly blamed “foreign hands” for Egypt’s economic and political turmoil. Since the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over running the country from Mubarak in February, as many as 100 people have been killed in clashes with the military.
“This was completely unexpected,” said Ziad Abdel Tawab, the deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, a group that was not affected by the raid. Tawab told The Daily Beast that employees for several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had been summoned for investigation in the past week, but “storming NGOs and offices, taking laptops, preventing members from using internet and investigating staff members--this is unprecedented in Egyptian history.”
MENA reported that the 17 organizations had been targeted as part of an investigation into foreign funding. “The search is based on evidence showing violation of Egyptian laws, including not having permits,” the news agency reported. Egyptian law requires that NGOs receive approval from the Ministry of Social Solidarity before they can receive foreign funds, but NDI and IRI have been operating without official registration in Egypt (IRI applied for registration in 2006, but the application has been on hold ever since), even under the Mubarak regime. Both groups describe themselves as non-partisan, but the National Democratic Institute is loosely associated with the U.S. Democratic Party, while IRI is Republican-leaning. During Mubarak’s regime, it was routine for non-governmental organization workers to be called in for questioning by security services, but the scale of these raids is unparalleled.
Tawab predicted the crackdown would only get worse. “We heard special police forces have also been going around buildings and asking the guards in each building which organizations are working here, which means more NGOs will be stormed in the coming few days,” he said.
The daylight storming of U.S.-funded NGOs also calls into question the U.S. relationship with a country where anti-American sentiment is high even though the U.S. government gives Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid every year.
“Painting its opponents as American stooges plays into SCAF’s narrative of foreign forces undermining stability,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “So to resort to this now is not surprising. It is remarkable how much SCAF has relied on stoking anti-U.S. sentiment even as it receives billions in funding from the U.S. Some call this irony, but SCAF seems rather shameless about it. The question is, can SCAF keep on getting away with this sort of thing?”
Tension over American funding of Egyptian NGOs has been on the rise since this summer, when the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, said the U.S. distributed $40 million to Egyptian NGOs. SCAF intimated they would launch an investigation into any funding not approved through the Egyptian government.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” said Hamid. “SCAF has been waging war on Egyptian NGOs since this spring. In many ways, it’s gotten worse for them under the military regime. SCAF seems to have a pronounced disdain not just for protesters, but human rights NGOs as well.”
A statement from NDI called the raids “deeply troubling,” especially since the group is working on election observation missions for the ongoing parliamentary elections. The third and final round of lower house elections is set to begin next week. “Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt’s historic transition sends a disturbing signal,” NDI President Kenneth Wollack said.
IRI took an even more aggressive tone in their statement on Thursday. “It is ironic that even during the Mubarak era IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action,” the organization said. “Today’s raid is confusing given that IRI was officially invited by the Government of Egypt to witness the people’s assembly elections, and was in the process of deploying a high level international delegation to observe the third phase of elections.”
Questions about America’s relationship with SCAF are mounting and as the situation develops, U.S. response to the raid may be critical. The military caretaker government has sought to portray itself as the guardian of the revolution, but violence against anti-SCAF protesters as well as a crackdown on civil society suggests otherwise. “Pressure on the Obama administration to put pressure on SCAF is growing. So SCAF may be playing with fire,” says Hamid. “But, from their standpoint, they’ve already gotten away with killing dozens of peaceful protesters, so they feel pretty secure in their position.”