CAIRO – It was an unusually intense raid on pro-democracy groups backed by some of Egypt's closest allies, including the United States: Special commandos in full gear sealed office doors shut with wax, demanded computer passwords, carted away boxes of documents and searched the bathrooms.
Rights groups on Friday denounced the startling show of force in the raids on 10 organizations a day earlier and accused Egypt's ruling generals of trying to silence critics as the country approaches the first anniversary of the revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.
Less than two weeks after the military violently crushed street protests leaving dozens killed and hundreds injured, some warned Thursday's raids were a sign of a fiercer crackdown ahead of new protests planned for Jan. 25, the anniversary of the start of the 18-day mass uprising.
The sweep was also a dramatic escalation in the military's campaign to portray the protests against its rule as a plot by "foreign hands" against Egypt.
The choice of targets was significant: The raided groups are not youth activists known for protests but ostensibly neutral groups working to promote democratic institutions, such as an independent judiciary, election monitoring and election campaign training.
Notably, three of them were American organizations funded in part by the State Department -- an indication Egypt's military, which receives some $1 billion a year from Washington, was willing to strain ties with a longtime ally in going after them. Raided were the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, which have helped to train political parties how to run campaigns and encourage political involvement of women and young people.
Military and judiciary officials said the groups were suspected of funneling foreign funds to foment protests and instability and "influence public opinion in non-peaceful ways." The groups and other rights organizations dismissed the accusations as an attempt to taint the broader revolution.
"The bottom line here is that the state unleashed its dogs in the media and in the government to tarnish our reputation so when we stand up against the military generals, we would be stripped of our credibility in front of public opinion," said Negad el-Borai, a rights advocate and a lawyer.
Government officials and media have been warning for months of action against groups receiving foreign funds.
That, they said, indicated the regime is going after causes linked to the secular, liberal protesters who have been denouncing the military's rule.
Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank with links to Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, was raided, as were at least two Egyptian non-governmental groups -- one aiming to strengthen an independent judiciary and another that monitors government budgets. The other organizations were not identified.
The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, spoke Friday with members of the ruling military council and "received assurances that the raids will cease and property will be returned immediately," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Patterson made clear that non-governmental organizations should be allowed to return to operation "in support of the democratic transition under way in Egypt," Nuland added.
The heavy hand of the raids startled even the Americans.
Another U.S. official said Washington had provided the Egyptian government with details on how the groups operate and use their money, and thought its concerns were resolved.
"It caught us all by surprise when they raided the offices because we didn't think that was the way this was going," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the raids.
In the sweep, teams of special commandos with weapons and military police, accompanied by investigative judges, stormed 17 offices around the country, including Cairo, the northern coastal city of Alexandria and the southern city of Assiut.
Nasser Amin, a veteran rights lawyer who chairs the Arab Center for the Independence of Judiciary, said commandos sealed off the main street leading to the building, then searched the center's 11th-floor office thoroughly for four hours. They sealed office doors with red wax and barred employees from leaving while they confiscated 18 computers and boxes of documents, he said.
"It's a fear-mongering campaign," said Amin, who has been critical of the military's handing of trials of former members of Mubarak's regime. His center receives funds from Europe.
"What is very dangerous here is that in the middle of this, they can just slip any fake document in the middle of all the papers and we find ourselves in grave danger."
A staffer at the National Democratic Institute, Hana El-Hattab, tweeted during the hourslong raid on the group's Cairo office, "they're literally checking the bathrooms before they allow anyone to use it."
She said they took history books from staffers' bags and personal laptops and refused to allow staffers to leave until they revealed the password of the center's server.
"Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt's historic transition sends a disturbing signal," institute president Kenneth Wollack in a statement.
Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid accused around 300 nonprofit groups of receiving unauthorized foreign funding and using the money to fund protests. An inspection team official alleged investigations had found the groups had received up to $100 million from abroad, then deposited the money in Egyptian banks under the names of illliterate Egyptians without their knowledge.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, did not elaborate.
Another official from the Interior Ministry said the military on Thursday found 70,000 Egyptian pounds ($11,600) in the office of one unidentified group, and seized half a million Egyptian pounds ($83,000) from the National Democratic Institute.
The groups are also accused of failing to register for licenses from Egyptian authorities, as required under law for non-governmental organizations.
Under Mubarak, the government rarely licensed pro-democracy and rights organizations, forcing them to work in a legal limbo. Despite the hopes of many NGOs, the situation has not improved since Mubarak's fall.
Activists have noted that the campaign against foreign funding has been led by International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, a stalwart of the Mubarak regime who retained her ministry post through successive Cabinet reshuffles this year.
Recently, a list of groups alleged to lack proper licensing or receiving funds outside government oversight was leaked from the Justice Ministry investigation to the press. Among them was the al-Sunna al-Muhammadiya association, connected to the ultraconservative Islamic Salafi movement that has been doing strongly in ongoing parliament elections. It was said to have received more than $50 million from Qatar and Kuwait, but was not targeted in raids.
Israa Abdel-Fattah, a female activist, said she applied in March for a license for her newly created Egyptian Democratic Institute in March and has still not received an answer.
Her group, which aims to promote political participation, was cited as among those receiving foreign funds. While it wasn't raided Thursday, she fears she could be next.
"This is very dangerous message to all of us," she said. "If you speak, you will be smashed."