WASHINGTON: Egyptian authorities agreed Friday to halt raids against non-governmental pro-democracy groups as senior Obama administration officials stepped up pressure for them to stop, US officials said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson spoke Friday with senior Egyptian officials to underscore Washington’s concern about the raids on the organizations, including three groups funded by Washington, according to the Pentagon and the State Department.
Egyptian authorities told Patterson in Cairo that the raids would stop and seized property would be returned to the groups, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
She said Patterson had made clear that the US expects "all international NGOs, including those that receive US government support, (to) be able to return to normal operations as soon as possible in support of the democratic transition under way in Egypt."
Patterson agreed to take part in a dialogue with Egyptian officials to better explain the work of the organizations and address any concerns they might have. "These NGOs should be allowed to operate freely as they do in countries around the world in support of democracy and free elections," Nuland said.
After Patterson’s discussions, Panetta spoke by phone to the head of Egypt’s ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to emphasize the importance the administration places on the country’s democratic transition and the ability of non-governmental organizations to work.
Panetta expressed appreciation for the decision to stop the raids and move to make it easier for NGOs to work in Egypt, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. "The secretary emphasized that it is critical for Egypt to continue on the path to democratic transition," he said.
Panetta "reaffirmed the importance of the US-Egyptian security relationship and made clear that the United States remains committed to the strategic partnership and stands ready to cooperate with Egypt as it continues its democratic transition," Little said.
On Thursday, Egyptian police and judicial officials raided a number of non-governmental organizations assisting in Egypt’s transition, including the US-funded National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House.
Deep suspicion remains towards the military after days of deadly clashes between troops and protesters demanding an immediate transition to a civilian government with full powers, with many questioning the generals’ readiness to hand over the reins.
Rabab Al-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said recent tirades by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) against the protesters and campaigns against the most vocal opposition movements were "indicators of a clear attack on voices of dissent".
"The raids on NGO offices have to be seen in the wider context, they cannot be taken in isolation," she told AFP.
In recent weeks, the military has charged that it uncovered a plot to burn down parliament, while state media spoke of plans for nationwide unrest on January 25, the first anniversary of the launch of protests against Mubarak, in preparation for a foreign invasion.
"They are demonizing anything foreign… in a bid to inject a sense of nationalism," said Mahdi.
They are "trying to draw loyalty so that any attack on SCAF is an attack on the nation," she added.
Hailed during the uprising for not siding with Mubarak, the generals now face growing discontent over their use of military courts to try civilians and suspicions that they are delaying the promised transition to civilian rule.
"There has been a smear campaign against the whole principle of foreign funding. The latest move is a way to narrow the space for civil society," said Heba Morayef, Egypt-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"They have specifically targeted the NGOs most active in exposing military abuses and pushing for real reform," she told AFP.
Freedom House president David J. Kramer said the actions taken against NGOs "represent an escalation of repression unheard of even during the Mubarak regime".
The office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights said the raids were aimed at intimidating campaigners and called for an end to "heavy-handed" tactics.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the raids were "particularly worrying," while Germany said they were "unacceptable" and called in the Egyptian ambassador.
British Foreign Office minister, Jeremy Browne, said the NGOs whose offices had been raided were supporting the transition to democracy in Egypt.
"Civil society has a vitally important role to play in that transition and should be encouraged and supported rather than impeded," he said.