Cairo (CNN) -- Several rights groups, including three U.S.-based entities, were raided in Cairo and other Egyptian locations on Thursday in what one source called a push by police to "show some muscle."
Police conducted 17 raids of nongovernmental organizations, targeting at least 10 groups across the country, Egypt's general prosecutor's office said. The targeted groups included U.S.-based Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI).
The actions were part of an investigation into allegations that groups may have received illegal foreign funding and have been operating without licenses from the Foreign Ministry and local ministries, according to Adel Saeed, spokesman for the general prosecutor's office.
But the leaders of the U.S.-based organizations and the U.S. State Department condemned the raids and called on Egyptian authorities to allow the groups to resume their work.
"This action is inconsistent with the bilateral cooperation we have had over many years," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday. Washington has called on Egyptian authorities "to immediately end the harassment of NGOs (and) NGO staff, return all property and resolve this issue immediately."
Freedom House urged the Obama administration to "scrutinize the $1.3 billion that the United States annually provides the Egyptian military to fund arms purchases and training."
"In the current fiscal environment, the United States must not subsidize authoritarianism in Egypt while the Egyptian government is preventing NGOs from implementing democracy and human rights projects subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer," said Charles Dunne, Freedom House's director of Middle East and North Africa programs.
The NDI and IRI, loosely affiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties and chaired by Madeleine Albright and John McCain, respectively, are funded in part by the US government, through the National Endowment for Democracy. In effect, the Egyptian government's actions represent US military aid being used to undermine the effectiveness of US civil society aid. It's worth expounding on the stakes here.
Egypt is in the midst of a democratic transition where Islamists (including the radical Salafists) have had much success at the ballot box. Jamie Kirchick recently talked to free-market oriented liberal activists leary of the direction that post-Mubarak Egypt; his American Interest article is difficult to summarize, but this part is relevant to today's news:
Counterintuitively, [activist Amr] Bargisi believes that the best hope for a liberal Egypt, given the circumstances, is if the Muslim Brotherhood gets the opportunity to steward the country. This is because the job of ruling Egypt right now is unenviable, and that whichever force comes to power is bound to lose popular support. This scenario, then, may provide sufficient time for genuine liberal ideals to take hold and for a true democratic opening to form. Bargisi tells me that there are three conditions, however, for this to happen. The first is that the international community must take a "lukewarm attitude, not too hostile, not too welcoming", to a Brotherhood-led Egypt. "Too hostile helps the Islamists; too welcoming helps the Islamists", he says.
Second, is that the West, and the United States in particular, should move away from the realm of "day-to-day" politics-full of rank opportunists and poseurs, in Bargisi's opinion-and instead "focus on civil society, think tanks, independent movements, political groups." And for this civil society to flourish, the military must "stand as a guard on democracy" and give up its "chauvinism." But most important is that those Egyptians opposed to the instantiation of a clerical state need to know as clearly as their Islamist opponents in which direction they want to take the country. "There must be some kind of vision for what the country should look like, and in this complete vagueness, the Islamists will win", Bargisi tells me.
Today's raids obviously get in the way of the second condition -- improving civil society -- but they also get in the way of the third condition; training political parties to define their views on issues is a big part of what the NDI and IRI do. Some liberals hope that the military can stand at a bulwark against unfettered, tyrannous Islamism, but now we see the military regime continuing and even expanding on Mubarak-era policies of actively suppressing liberal opposition. This does not bode well.
If the regime doesn't comply with Nuland's call for an immediate change in course, military aid needs to be at least partially halted, if only briefly. Letting this stand with no tangible consequences is asking for trouble.
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