Tension swells as Egyptian police raid NGO offices

Army wants to keep its power and privileges so it continues to detain and torture protesters
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Egyptian police and justice officials have raided the offices of 17 non-governmental organisations all over the country in what appears to be part of an escalating campaign by the military government to crush groups involved in the pro-democracy movement. Two prominent American pressure groups were among those targeted in the raids.

Police prevented members of the NGOs from leaving their offices during the searches and security agents confiscated documents and computers. The Egyptian public prosecutor said that “17 civil society organisations, local and foreign” were under investigation for being funded from abroad. At least one of the foreign NGOs is accused of operating without a permit.

The raids, some supported by military units in the street outside the offices being searched, is a further sign of the deteriorating relations between the military government and the protesters. The authorities have also been intent on putting the blame for lack of security and economic decline on those wanting to change the system.

The suggestion that civil rights and pro-democracy groups are tainted by receiving funds from abroad will be seen as hypocritical by critics of the military government since the Egyptian army receives $1.5 billion a year from the US. Many of its senior officers have been trained in the US and President Hosni Mubarak was notoriously compliant to US wishes in the Middle East over three decades.

During the last days of Mr Mubarak, organisations like Human Rights Watch were harassed and their workers detained. Security forces throughout the Middle East have always suspected that foreign NGOs claiming to spread democracy are in practice covertly acting on instructions from their home governments. A further motive of the high-profile searches yesterday is probably to imply that Egyptian NGOS have unpatriotic motives.

Among foreign NGOs raided are the local offices of two American organisations, the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute. "Security forces who said they were from the public prosecutor are raiding our offices as we speak,” one employee of latter group told a news agency. “They are grabbing all the papers and laptops as well."

Foreign NGOs often provide training for local groups involved in elections.

Some Egyptian NGOs have played a leading role in protests demanding the army relinquish power, something that it has been promising to do since the overthrow of Mr Mubarak in February. But the army withdrew its support from Mr Mubarak at that time ostensibly in order to keep its power and privileges and it is now reluctant to step aside or see its authority diluted. It has continued to arrest and torture its critics.

Clashes between protesters and soldiers in Cairo earlier this month left 17 people dead. The army has also taken every opportunity to suggest that the protest movement is orchestrated by foreign powers.

In a further sign of the state trying to stifle political change, a court in Cairo has acquitted five policemen of charges of killing five protesters and wounding six others during the 18-day uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime. Some 800 protesters were killed between 25 January and 11 February when Mr Mubarak was ousted.

The court said three of the defendants were not at the site of the killings while the two others fired against protesters in self-defence. The acquittals are likely to further poison relations between the army and the reform movement.