At civil rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo, it's hard to get a straight answer. Outside the ransacked building sit three men, one in a white police uniform and two in plain clothes.
When asked where they come from, one says from the local police department; another says from state intelligence. When asked if they are protecting the recently looted building, one says yes; another with a smile says no. But when questioned whether Mr. Ibrahim can enter his own building, they all agree - no.
"A detachment from State Security [Egypt's intelligence services] came to the building, ordered my guard out after roughing him up, and occupied the building," says Ibrahim, a high-profile activist who was acquitted in March of charges that included defaming Egypt. It was a case that led to worldwide criticism against the government.
The crackdown against civil activists like Ibrahim is a window into the murky world of Egyptian civil liberties. Egypt is a strong US ally in the Middle East and a bulwark against Islamic extremism. But it also has a reputation for interference with and harassment of human rights activists, journalists, and other advocates of a free society - something that strikes hard at those who saw the Iraq war as a possible opening for democratic reforms in a region where authoritarianism is the rule.
Since the war with Iraq ended, there was hope throughout the region that greater democracy was on its way, including more freedoms for civil societies in the Middle East.
In Egypt, there were signs the government might fulfill these hopes when it announced several democratic proposals that the parliament just passed this Monday, including eliminating hard labor from the penal code, abolishing state security courts, and establishing a National Council for Human Rights to support and develop human rights in Egypt.
But Ibrahim's has been a cautionary tale. On the same day his office was occupied, the government also refused the registration of two nongovernmental human rights organizations, threatening them with eventual closure. And earlier this week respected human rights activist Mohamed Zarea was detained and interrogated at the Cairo airport after attending a human rights conference in Beirut.
Human rights activists in Egypt, the region, and the West have condemned these activities.
"It's a signal that the system is entrenched and that there will be no change," says Mohamed El Sayed Said, academic adviser to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "The government is back to its normal practice of repression and denial of assembly. It's showing its teeth by such brutal intervention."
While many activists and intellectuals welcomed these changes, most say the real test will be the implementation of a new, 2002 law governing Egypt's nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Egypt's approximately 16,000 NGOs - which provide social programs from medical care and basic hygiene to literacy and job creation - had six months to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs before a June 4 deadline.
Human rights activists and others strongly criticized the new NGO law, saying it gives the government sweeping new powers to refuse registration or eventually shut down a group; to monitor and approve of an NGO's key activities, including foreign fundraising; and even to approve the selection of its board of directors. Just last month, the authorities rejected a board nominee for a women's rights organization.
Some groups critical of the government are trying to bypass registration altogether. Ibrahim, for instance, registered his center as a for-profit company, rather than an NGO, to avoid the new law's restrictions under the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Some speculate that this sidestepping may have been the reason for the government's occupation of the Ibn Khaldoun Center. If so, the authorities aren't saying. In fact, they deny that State Security occupied this building: "Ibn Khaldoun's occupation by the security services never happened," states Nabil Osman, director of Egypt's State Information Service.
The two groups whose registrations were refused, the New Woman Research Center, a prominent women's rights advocacy group, and the Land Center for Human Rights, a labor advocacy group for peasants and farm workers, say they will fight the government's decision in court.
The government, for its part, says its decision is not final; the two groups merely had errors on their application that must be corrected. "They were not refused," maintains Osman. "They were asked to adapt themselves to the law."
Nevertheless, the letters to both organizations state that State Security rejected their registration. What infuriated the activists was the letter's implication: they were refused for security reasons.
While many analysts agreed that the Egyptian government's latest moves were alarming, others were less concerned. "I wouldn't say that Egypt's civil society is under threat," says one Western diplomat. "There's a process unfolding and we're eager to see how it turns out. At this point we have indicators that are not so positive."
He added that even Western governments try to regulate their nonprofit organizations. This is especially important, he said, to prevent the funding of terrorist organizations, for example.
While Egypt's resolve to implement democratic reform might seem shaky, some other Arab countries are moving ahead. Jordan just held parliamentary elections this week that allowed opposition Islamic candidates to regain a foothold after boycotting the 1997 elections. Last September Morocco also held parliamentary elections that reserved nearly 10 percent of the seats for women.
In Ibrahim's opinion the government's latest actions show an internal battle between the old and new guard. "There is the old guard, left over from the authoritarian Nasser years," he says, referring to Egypt's ardent nationalist leader President Abdel Nasser. "And there are new forces that are trying to join the world and to liberalize ... society, but that young wing backs down when there is a confrontation."
Whatever the government's motives, members of Egypt's civil society say they'll fight with whatever peaceful means they have to safeguard their existence.