Cairo — Egypt’s military-led government on Sunday justified its recent crackdown on human rights and democracy-building organizations as a defense against foreign interference in its politics, defying international pressure and contradicting reports from senior officials in Washington that Egypt’s military rulers had pledged to soften their stance.
Egypt’s defense of the raids escalates a diplomatic feud with Washington that began last Thursday with raids by armed police officers on the offices of 10 nonprofit groups, including 3 supported mainly by the United States government: the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House.
Egypt’s continued support of the raids is also the latest indication that the military rulers who took over after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak share his government’s dim view of the international norms of democracy and human rights. Facing escalating domestic and international pressure to turn over power, the ruling military council has appeared increasingly willing to use force without apology to intimidate its critics, including directing assaults on demonstrators that have left more than 80 people dead and hundreds wounded over the last three months.
The raids on the nonprofit groups have sent a tremor of fear through the network of human rights watchdogs that have documented and strongly criticized abuses by the military.
As recently as Friday, United States officials said that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta had received assurances from Egypt’s top military officer and de facto chief executive, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, that his government would stop the raids, allow the groups to reopen, and return confiscated computers and other property. State Department officials said the United States envoy to Egypt, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson, had heard similar promises from Egyptian officials, including a member of the ruling military council.
But in Egypt’s first public explanation of last week’s raids, Faiza Abu El-Naga, the civilian cabinet official in charge of “international cooperation,” offered a different account of those conversations. Ambassador Patterson, Ms. Abu El-Naga said, had offered assurances about the American-sponsored groups.
“The ambassador promised that these organizations will fix their legal status,” she said, “and we promised to review their applications, provided that they abide by the requirements of Egyptian law.” Representatives of the State Department and the embassy would not comment on Sunday.
Employees of the raided organizations — most still unable to re-enter their offices — said the news conference by Ms. Abu El-Naga appeared to erase whatever guarantees the American officials thought they had won. “Nothing has changed,” one said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Ms. Abu El-Naga, herself one of the last senior civilians left over from Mr. Mubarak’s government, called the raids a legitimate step in a continuing investigation into suspected violations of Mubarak-era laws. If enforced, those laws would all but eliminate any independent human rights or civil society group here.
Mr. Mubarak more or less tolerated a variety of such groups, provided that they submitted to the close supervision of the secret police. But he kept on the books laws that required any such group to obtain a license, which was almost never granted. His disapproval deterred almost any domestic financing for such groups, forcing them to turn to donors in the United States and Europe. And he imposed another rule expressly barring foreign financing for unlicensed groups or unauthorized purposes.
After Mr. Mubarak was forced from office in February and the military seized power, the generals left the laws in place. Foreign money poured into Egyptian human rights and civil society groups from Western donors hoping to help Egypt build a functioning democracy. Some groups, Ms. Abu El-Naga noted, opened offices for the first time in Cairo and other cities.
“They started receiving funds behind the Egyptian government’s back, which is something the Egyptian government doesn’t accept,” she said, adding that she had called for investigations months ago “when I found out that it interferes with sovereignty and Egyptian national security.” She likened the laws prohibiting foreign financing to unlicensed rights groups to the rules in other countries, like the United States, that bar foreign contributions to political parties.
She would not name any groups involved in the raid or how they might have threatened Egyptian sovereignty, though the identities and activities of some are well known. Two of the American-financed groups — the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute — provide training in the nuts and bolts of campaigning, and they monitor elections. The other American-financed group that was raided, Freedom House, trains journalists. And a foreign-financed Egyptian group that was raided advocates an independent judiciary — an idea seemingly every political party in Egypt is eager to endorse.
If the investigation continues, said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Egypt, “It is going to shut down every human rights organization in Egypt.”
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
This article, "Undercutting Vow of Softer Stance, Egypt Again Defends Office Raids," originally appeared at The New York Times.