A series of armed sweeps of democracy, justice, and human rights organizations in Egypt today drew denunciations from the US and from a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who called the actions "unprecedented."
The US Embassy in Cairo wrote on its Twitter feed that it was "deeply concerned that Egyptian judicial and police officials raided the offices of a number of NGOs today." When an Egyptian on Twitter directed a comment to the Embassy that "SCAF receives $1.3 billion in annual military aid from [the] US but yet NGOs who 'might' be receiving foreign aid [are] stormed?" the embassy responded "good point."
SCAF is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the committee of senior military officers who have run the country since Hosni Mubarak was pushed from power in February by mass protests against his rule. Among the groups targeted today were Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute, democracy promotion organizations that received a substantial portion of their funding from the US government's National Endowment for Democracy.
The raids add to growing unease among Egyptian democracy activists about SCAF's true intentions. Though the council has insisted that it supports transition to democracy, with parliamentary elections scheduled to wrap up in the next few weeks and presidential elections promised by July, it has also shown a heavy hand at times.
Democracy activists have been given jail terms by military courts, protests against military rule have been violently disbursed, and public warnings that "foreign hands" are stirring up trouble have been frequently issued by representatives of the junta. Activists have frequently pointed out that while both military and civilian politicians frequently warn of not allowing "foreign interference" in internal Egyptian affairs, the military and government are themselves heavily reliant on foreign aid, most notably from the US.
At least 10 NGOs were raided by Egyptian security forces this afternoon according to Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based Human Rights Watch researcher.
“This is completely unprecedented,” says Ms. Morayef, explaining that while rights organizations were sporadically targeted during Mubarak's rule, there was never such a large-scale operation against NGOs. She confirmed 10 organizations raided today, while a press release from the Ministry of Justice identified 17 organizations.
Security forces entered the NGOs' offices, prevented employees from leaving, and searched the premises. Among those searched were a number of Egyptian NGOs, including the Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory. Both were ordered closed and their doors sealed by security forces, according to Morayef.
The Cairo office of International Republican Institute (IRI) quickly released a statement confirming the raid and its operation and said “it is ironic that even during the Mubarak era IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action. Today’s raid is confusing given that IRI was officially invited by the Government of Egypt.” Both IRI and NDI were ordered closed for about a year in 2006, though that was handled through bureaucratic and diplomatic channels, not with armed security agents poring over their records.
In mid-September the Egyptian Cabinet identified 30 NGOs they said are receiving foreign funds and are not registered with the Egyptian Social Solidarity Ministry. Today’s raids mark the first wide-scale action as part of an ongoing government investigation.
“My biggest fear is that this is designed to crack down on the most independent organizations,” says Morayef. “These organizations are dependent on foreign funding because they couldn’t receive local funding under Mubarak. The NGO law should have been amended and wasn’t.”
Condition US aid?
What comes next is uncertain. In November, some members of the US Congress said Egypt's military aid should be tied to concrete and ongoing democratic reform.
The Obama administration urged against conditions on Egypt's aid. Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said "the administration believes that putting conditions on our assistance to Egypt is the wrong approach, and Secretary Clinton has made this point strongly. Egypt is a pivotal country in the Middle East and a long-time partner of the United States. We have continued to rely on Egypt to support and advance US interests in the region, including peace with Israel, confronting Iranian ambitions, interdicting smugglers, and supporting Iraq.... [C]onditioning assistance risks putting our relations with Egypt in a contentious place at the worst possible moment."
Today, the US Embassy in Cairo said it was in close touch with Egyptian officials and urged that "harassment" of NGOs come to an end.