CAIRO – There was a flurry of good news last week in Egypt. Activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah was released on Christmas Day, Cairo's Administrative Court issued a ruling banning "virginity tests," and thousands of women took part in a spirited march in downtown Cairo to denounce the military's brutal violence against women protesters during the breakup of a sit-in in front of the Cabinet building on Dec. 16 and 17.
That streak of good times was interrupted Thursday afternoon when public prosecution officials, assisted by armed Central Security Forces (CSF) soldiers -- Cairo's ubiquitous black-clad riot troops -- raided the offices of six civil society groups.
They started just after noon, with the 12th- floor headquarters of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP), and continued on to five others, including three with ties to the U.S. government.
In early December, ACIJLP's director Nasser Amin was standing for election to the People's Assembly. Today, he watched as computers and files being were removed and his office sealed shut, his organization targeted as part of a sweeping campaign against NGOs accused of receiving foreign funding.
In the Hosni Mubarak years, civil society activity was heavily monitored and contained through two main mechanisms: arbitrary interference from the much much-feared State Security Investigations apparatus (now renamed National Security), and draconian legislation passed in 2002 that requires all NGOs to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MOSS) and criminalizes the receipt of foreign funding without MOSS authorization.
Some NGOs registered as private businesses to avoid these restrictions, but the rules of the game have clearly changed. As Negad El-Borai, a rights lawyer, tweeted Thursday, "What never happened under the rule of Mubarak is happening after the revolution."
The authorities' harassment of civil society took a different form under Mubarak. While there were some incidents of government officials entering NGO premises, it was never on this scale. Thursday's raid on the six NGOs follows the slow boil of a smear campaign that began in July, according to which NGOs are receiving foreign funding as part of a nefarious plot to destabilize Egypt.
The raids seem to be the work of Fayza Abol Naga, a Mubarak stalwart who has headed the Ministry of International Cooperation, which deals with foreign organizations, since 2001 and has survived four government shakeups since February 2011.