CAIRO — Egyptian security forces stormed on Thursday the offices of 10 human rights and pro-democracy groups, including several based in the U.S., accused by the country's military rulers of fomenting protests with the help of foreign funding.
The raids are part of a crackdown on activists who have grown increasingly critical of the ruling generals, who blame "foreign hands" for the unrest that continues to roil Egypt. This month, Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid accused around 300 nonprofit civil society groups of receiving unauthorized foreign funding and using the money for protests.
Among the offices ransacked were the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which is observing Egypt's staggered parliamentary elections.
The Obama administration demanded Egyptian authorities immediately halt the raids on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), saying the are "inconsistent" with long-standing U.S-Egypt cooperation. By far the largest recipient of foreign funding in Egypt is the military itself, which has for more than 30 years received about $1.3 billion in annual U.S. security assistance.
The U.S. State Department called on the Egyptian government "to immediately end the harassment of NGO staff, return all property and resolve this issue." Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East have spoken to Egyptian officials about the situation and "made very clear that this issue needs immediate attention."
The head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Gamal Eid, said an employee trapped inside another local NGO office that was being raided called him to say security forces were removing laptop computers and documents. Eid told The Associated Press the troops and police banned anyone from entering or speaking with employees at the offices as they interrogated them.
Also, security forces raided the apartment of Ahmed Ali al-Salkawy, 29, a member of a group that played a key role in the uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February. A security official claimed police found documents deemed hostile to the nation.
The raids on the NGO's were the first since Mubarak's ouster, though Egyptian officials have been levying accusations for months that the civil society groups are serving a foreign agenda.
Activists said the raids are proof that the military's harsh tactics are no different from those of the deposed Mubarak regime.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, told The Associated Press that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is trying to attack groups that have criticized the military's human rights records.
"I believe SCAF is trying to find some scapegoat (for their human rights record)," she said. "Targeting civil society was a technique used by Mubarak, so it really is reminiscent of the worst tactics of the Mubarak era."
Ahmed Maher, founder of one of the reform movements, told the AP: "This is the old regime still in place and military rulers defending that regime. Many generals have vested interests in the old regime."
The Interior Ministry said the raids on 10 nonprofit organizations were part of an investigation into foreign funding of rights groups. During the uprising and since Mubarak's ouster, Egyptian authorities have complained about vague foreign attempts to destabilize the country. Egypt, like other Arab states, has a long history of blaming internal problems on foreign saboteurs.
Egyptian law requires organizations receiving foreign funding to get a permit from the Ministry of International Cooperation. The ministry is led by Fayza Aboul-Naga, who was appointed by Mubarak. Offenders can be sentenced to prison terms.
A security official said "influencing public opinion in non-peaceful ways" is among the possible charges that could be brought against the 10 organizations being investigated. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
In August, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, gave a speech in Washington, where he criticized the United States for funding pro-democracy groups without submitting to Egyptian government supervision. He said it violated Egyptian laws and called it "a matter of sovereignty."
The crackdown was sure to inflame almost constant protests in downtown Cairo that have thrust Egypt into a state of permanent revolution as the economy and security continue to spiral downward.
Protesters accuse the military of bungling what was supposed to be a quick transition to democracy and are demanding the military hand over power to a civilian authority.
Egypt's leading pro-democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate, denounced the raids.
"Human rights organizations are the guardians of nascent freedom. Efforts to suffocate them will be a major setback and will surely backfire," ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter account.
Three U.S.-based organizations — IRI, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, were among those searched Thursday.
In Washington, the IRI issued a statement noting, "it is ironic that even during the Mubarak era, IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action." The group said it does not provide funding to political parties or groups in Egypt.
An official with the Egyptian Attorney General's office said at least one of the U.S.-based organizations being searched was operating without proper permits. He did not say which one.
Also likely to inflame protests, an Egyptian court on Thursday acquitted five policemen of charges of killing five protesters and wounding six others during the uprising. More than 800 protesters were killed in the demonstrations.
The court said three of the defendants were not at the site of the killings while the two others fired against protesters in self defense.
Protesters have demanded that security forces who killed demonstrators be brought to justice along with those who gave orders to open fire. Mubarak himself is on trial on charges he was involved in the killing of protesters in the uprising. He could face the death penalty if convicted.