Egyptian police stormed the offices of at least six western and local democracy and human rights groups that have called for greater transparency and accountability, seizing computers and files and confining some staff inside premises.

Interior ministry forces and judiciary officials under the command of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) conducted simultaneous raids yesterday on the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House – both American-based non-profit groups – and numerous Egyptian civil society groups that expose torture, corruption and abuses of power.

“The military police accompanied with one member of the general prosecutor’s office suddenly attacked our office,” said Helmy Rawy, head of the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, an organisation that critically assesses Egypt’s military expenditures.

“They took all the documents and all the computers. It’s a new campaign against freedom from the Scaf, against civil society in Egypt. They don’t want anyone to raise their voice for freedom.”

The late-afternoon raids were said to target 17 organisations, though only six could be confirmed. Many of the groups monitor the country’s parliamentary elections, set to resume next week.

By nightfall, some employees of the groups continued to be confined to their offices. “I really have no idea why they are holding us inside and confiscating our personal laptops,” an employee of NDI posted to her Twitter page two hours after the raid.

Separately, a court yesterday acquitted policemen accused of killing protesters during the country’s popular democratic uprising.

Rights activists see the moves as part of a long-simmering attempt by Egypt’s military rulers, comprised of longtime allies of the deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, to use legal mechanisms to intimidate civil society groups and maintain their grip on power.

“It was never a question of if, just a question of when,” said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a non-profit group that was not raided. “Choosing the last work day in the calendar year is not a coincidence; it is because the world is not watching.”

The military and its supporters accuse the NGOs of not being properly documented under the country’s Law of Associations, a Mubarak-era law that gives the state control over civil society groups, and serving as instruments of foreign interests seeking to destabilise Egypt because they accept money from western governments.

The NDI, IRI and Freedom House all receive US government money, while Mr Rawy’s group receives tens of thousands of dollars in grants from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the
US. Many NGOs register as either clinics or law offices because the Law of Associations makes it very difficult for their groups to register, activists say.

According to a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, the authorities began pursuing the case against the civil society groups in July, accusing them of stirring up discontent and street protests.

Rights activists believe the military’s strategy will backfire, drawing international condemnation and a backlash on the streets. They also note that the Egyptian military receives more than $1bn a year in US funding.

“I think the military doesn’t realise the full implications of this,” said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, whose offices were not raided. “This is driven by the world view that there is foreign funding destabilising Egypt. This is something we’ve heard form Scaf and military intelligence.”

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