CAIRO — Egyptian soldiers and police stormed pro-democracy offices on Thursday, targeting groups critical of the military rulers while reinforcing activists' charges that the military's harsh tactics are no different from those of the deposed regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Among the offices ransacked by police were well known U.S.-based organizations like the International Republican Institute, which is observing Egypt's ongoing parliamentary election process. IRI issued a statement denouncing the raid, as did reformers and rights groups.
The raids on 10 non-governmental organizations were part of an investigation into foreign funding of rights groups, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said. Egypt charges that foreign plots are behind the ongoing protests.
The crackdown was sure to inflame almost constant protests in downtown Cairo, demanding that the ruling military that took over after Mubarak in February hand over power to a civilian authority after more than 60 years in power.
A leading Egyptian reformist Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate, denounced the raids.
"Human rights organizations are the guardians of nascent freedom. Efforts to suffocate them will be a major setback and will surely backfire," ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter account.
Also likely to inflame protests, an Egyptian court on Thursday acquitted five policemen of charges of killing five protesters and wounding six others during the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak's regime Feb. 11. More than 800 protesters were killed in the demonstrations that began Jan. 25.
The court said three of the defendants were not at the site of the killings while the two others fired against protesters in self defense.
Protesters have demanded that security forces who killed demonstrators be brought to justice along with those who gave orders to open fire. Mubarak himself is on trial on charges he was involved in the killing of protesters in the uprising. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
During the uprising and since Mubarak's ouster, Egyptian authorities have complained about unspecified foreign attempts to destabilize the country. Egypt, like other Arab states, has a long history of blaming internal problems on foreign saboteurs.
The raids on the NGO's were the first since Mubarak's ouster, though Egyptian officials have been levying accusations for months that rights groups are serving a foreign agenda.
Egyptian law requires organizations receiving foreign funding to get a permit from the Ministry of International Cooperation. The ministry is led by Fayza Aboul-Naga, who was appointed by Mubarak. Offenders can be sentenced to prison terms.
The security official said "influencing public opinion in non-peaceful ways" is among the possible charges that could be brought against the 10 organizations being investigated.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Egypt's military has for more than 30 years received about $1.3 billion in annual U.S. security assistance.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victgoria Nuland said the U.S. is "deeply concerned" about the raids. "This action is inconsistent with the bilateral cooperation we have had over many years," she said, adding that the U.S. government is in touch with Egyptian officials.
This month, Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid accused around 300 non-governmental organizations of receiving unauthorized foreign funding and using the money for protests.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, told The Associated Press that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is trying to attack groups that have criticized the military's human rights records.
"I believe SCAF is trying to find some scapegoat (for their human rights record)," she said. "Targeting civil society was a technique used by Mubarak, so it really is reminiscent of the worst tactics of the Mubarak era."
The raids and the acquittal of the police were certain to usher in a new low in relations between the ruling generals who took over from Mubarak and rights groups and activists who engineered the uprising that ousted him.
In August, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, gave a speech in Washington, where he criticized the United States for funding pro-democracy groups without submitting to Egyptian government supervision. He said it violated Egyptian laws and called it "a matter of sovereignty."
Three U.S.-based organizations — IRI, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, were among those searched Thursday.
In Washington, the IRI issued a statement noting, "it is ironic that even during the Mubarak era, IRI was not subjected to such aggressive action." The group said it does not provide funding to political parties or groups in Egypt.
An official with the Egyptian Attorney General's office said at least one of the U.S.-based organizations being searched was operating without proper permits. He did not say which one.
The head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Gamal Eid, said an employee trapped inside one of the local NGO's called him to say security forces were removing laptop computers and documents.
Eid told the AP the troops and police banned anyone from entering or speaking with employees at the offices as they interrogated them.
Also, security forces raided the apartment of Ahmed Ali al-Salkawy, 29, a member of a group that played a key role in the anti-Mubarak uprising. A security official said police found documents deemed hostile to the nation.
"This is the old regime still in place and military rulers defending that regime," Ahmed Maher, founder of one of the reform movements, told the AP. "Many generals have vested interests in the old regime."