CAIRO — Egyptian authorities on Thursday raided the offices of 17 domestic and international human rights and pro-democracy organizations, including several that receive U.S. government funding, in a sharp intensification of the military's crackdown that recalled the tactics of the country's ousted authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak.
The raids in Cairo and other cities appeared to be an effort by the ruling military to intimidate nongovernmental organizations that it accuses of promoting a "foreign agenda" and supporting protests against its rule.
Dozens of police officers, military personnel and judicial officials held and interrogated staff members for several hours, confiscated computers and documents, and closed at least five of the offices, the agencies said. They said the searches were conducted without warrants.
"The raids today represent an escalation of repression unheard-of even during the Mubarak regime," said David J. Kramer, the president of Freedom House, a U.S.-based pro-democracy group whose offices in Cairo were among those raided.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
"These actions come in the context of an intensive campaign by the Egyptian government to dismantle civil society through a politically motivated legal campaign aimed at preventing 'illegal foreign funding' of civil society operations in Egypt."
Egypt's state-owned Middle East News Agency reported that the raids "took place as a part of a broad and ongoing investigation into the operations of several NGOs accused of illegally receiving foreign funds."
Among the offices raided and closed were those of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, two U.S.-based groups that receive American government funding and had been assisting Egyptian political parties in their campaigns for the recent parliamentary elections, the first since Mubarak resigned last February. The third and final round of those polls is scheduled to begin next week.
Both groups said in statements that their work focused on promoting democratic participation and that they didn't provide financial or material support to individual parties, candidates or civic groups.
"Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt's historic transition sends a disturbing signal," said National Democratic Institute President Kenneth Wollack.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was "deeply concerned" about the raids, called for the immediate return of computers and other seized property and demanded that Egyptian authorities "immediately end the harassment of NGO staff."
"We don't think the action is justified, and we want to see the harassment end," Nuland said.
"We believe that these NGOs are there to support the democratic process. We have been very open and transparent with Egyptian authorities at all levels, particularly about the operating procedures and policies of NDI, IRI and other international . . . NGOs that we support. So we are very concerned, because this is not appropriate in the current environment."
Nuland said the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, had been in touch with Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal el Ganzouri, and that a senior State Department official had spoken with Egypt's envoy to Washington, Sameh Shoukry. She said the U.S. officials had made "strong representations" to their Egyptian counterparts, but she declined to reveal details of the discussions.
Egyptian groups described the raids as the latest in a string of attacks on their work by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled since Mubarak resigned and is supposed to be paving the way to a new democratic government. All the groups that were targeted have spoken out against military trials of civilians and acts of torture against protesters, such as forced virginity tests for women.
"Today's unjustified acts represent a long list of legal violations," said Hafez Abu Seada, the director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which hosted a news conference condemning the raids.
Abu Saeda noted that the security and judicial personnel conducting the raids didn't document the items they seized, suggesting — in a nod to security forces' Mubarak-era tactics — that "they could fabricate any evidence and announce finding it among what they confiscated."
A statement that 25 Egyptian and international agencies signed after the raids said: "This shameful violation that we never witnessed even under the Mubarak regime is an attempt by the ruling military to cover for its failure in administrating the country during the transitional period and fulfilling the demands of the revolution" that toppled Mubarak.
Egypt's Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, an independent organization that recently called on the military to publicize its budget for the first time, was among the groups that were raided and shut down Thursday.
Egypt's military receives more than $1.3 billion annually in U.S. assistance.
"The military is concerned about questioning by the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory or anyone advocating transparency," said Helmi al Rawi, the group's director.
Egyptian law makes it extremely difficult for most human rights groups to obtain licenses, leaving many to operate unofficially. In a February 2010 State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials in Cairo reported that Egyptian law allowed authorities to ban any organization that engaged in "prohibited activities" including "threatening national unity," and "to dissolve an NGO for receiving foreign funding or sending funds abroad without permission, as well as for various other violations."
"Today's raid is confusing given that IRI was officially invited by the government of Egypt to witness the elections, and was in the process of deploying a high-level international delegation to observe the third phase of elections on January 3 and 4, having successfully deployed witnesses for phases one and two," the Thursday statement said.
"It is ironic that even during the Mubarak era IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action."
The raid on Freedom House occurred just three days after the organization formally submitted papers to register its offices in accordance with Egyptian law, the group said.
"It is the clearest indication yet that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ... has no intention of permitting the establishment of genuine democracy and is attempting to scapegoat civil society for its own abysmal failure to manage Egypt's transition effectively," said Kramer, the group's president.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington. Tish Wells contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Middle East page.