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.
We can't say she didn't warn us. On Dec. 21, state mouthpiece Al-Ahram reported that Abol Naga sent a report detailing foreign funding of local groups. Two of the groups supposedly named in the report -- the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) -- were among those targeted in Thursday's raids.
I was among those gathered outside NDI's Cairo office on Thursday, where a tall CSF soldier dressed in a bulletproof vest carrying a shotgun stood sentry at the gate while behind him other armed men and men in suits occasionally appeared in the office's garden.
NDI employees drank coffee and smoked cigarettes in balconies, but were forbidden by CSF troops from talking to journalists. Nor were they allowed to leave the office for the duration of the search.
The tall soldier endured the journalists clustered at the gate. A young photographer asked his permission him to take a photo. The soldier replied that this is not allowed, and the two then engaged in a dreary, never-ending Mubarak-era type bartering session about where exactly on the pavement police control ends and public space and freedom begins. Luckily, this was interrupted by the soldier's mobile phone ringing. His ringtone was No Doubt's "Don't Speak" -- a fitting message on a day Egyptian civil society was being silenced.
The search went on for hours, until dusk. Gradually a collection of laptops, boxes full of files, video equipment, flip charts, and a safe accumulated behind the gate. Men in jeans and leather jackets gathered around it smoking. A friendly cat joined them.
A brief moment of drama was provided when a bad-tempered looking man in a suit, possibly a public prosecution office lawyer, slipped down the marble steps. He got up and turned around to remonstrate with the step, running his shoe over it in an attempt to identify slippery matter, possibly foreign-funded.
As this was happening, Egyptian activists resorted to their old standby: humor.
Hossam Bahgat, director of rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights -- which itself is at risk -- tweeted, "All my life I've said that it's better that they take us from our offices with dignity than from our houses in sheets."
Later, he added that in addition to computers and files, the police had seized a kettle from one of the NGOs targeted, prompting a Twitter campaign for its release. (One joker suggested that the kettle had confessed that it is the "third party" in the military's conspiracy theory.)
Eventually, NDI's staff were permitted to leave. None would talk. The contents of the office were loaded onto the back of two police pick-up trucks and they disappeared into the night.
The CSF soldiers took rather longer to leave, as their truck wouldn't start and had to be pushed away. It was a fitting end to this shoddy and poorly disguised attempt to intimidate civil society, overseen by the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) -- itself funded by the United States to the tune of $1.3 billion per year, an irony that seemed to be lost on state television, which lapped up the SCAF's narrative of stopping the unseen foreign hand.