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Egypt's military rulers crack down on democracy groups

Egypt's military junta raided independent civil society groups today, including the United States' premier democracy promoters.

By Staff writer / December 29, 2011

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (r.) the head of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and Egyptian armed forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan (l.) pictured in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 22. SCAF raided pro-democracy groups, Thursday.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters/AP

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The military junta that has ruled Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February cracked down hard today, sweeping into the offices of more than a dozen human rights and democracy promotion groups today, some of them US-funded. Files were seized and prosecutions threatened. 

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The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has accused activists who have clashed with security forces as being stirred up by "foreign hands." SCAF sought to advance that narrative today with the raids, which included the local offices of the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House.

While the Egyptian uprising is often described as a revolution, it was the military that pushed out Mr. Mubarak, a former top officer, to mollify protesters. The military put itself directly in charge on a transitional basis, maintaining a political order that's been guided by the Egyptian military since the 1950s. While SCAF has insisted that it's overseeing an orderly transition towards democracy, it has arrested political dissidents, used deadly force on protesters, and sentenced political activists to jail terms in military trials since Mubarak fell.

In the run-up to the ongoing parliamentary elections, which head into their third and final round next week, SCAF also put pressure on civilian political parties to promise that a new Egyptian constitution, scheduled to be written next year, would not place the military's budget and management under full civilian control. When protesters have demanded an end to military trials and indefinite detention under the country's emergency law, senior officers and officials who answer to SCAF have dismissed the protesters as agents of foreign powers seeking to harm Egypt – a tactic right out of the Mubarak-era playbook.

This storm has been gathering for some time. In September, Egypt announced that it was preparing prosecutions of 30 nongovernmental organizations on the charge of "treason" for improperly receiving foreign funding.

Sends 'alarming signals'

Human Rights Watch warned the prosecutions could have a chilling effect on reform.

"Restricting foreign funding can effectively deny civil society groups the ability to operate since under former President Hosni Mubarak, local funding sources shied away from funding controversial groups," Human Rights Watch wrote in late September. Joe Stork, the group's deputy head for the Middle East, said then: "It sends alarming signals about the transitional government’s commitment to human rights that Egyptian authorities have started a criminal investigation with the same methods Hosni Mubarak used to strangle civil society."

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