WASHINGTON — Egypt's military rulers privately signaled a retreat Friday in a crackdown on organizations that promote democracy and human rights, the New York Times reported Friday, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
The country's de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and other senior officials pledged to halt the raids against the organizations, to allow them to reopen their offices and to return documents, computers and other property seized Thursday, the U.S. officials said, according to the New York Times.
It said Tantawi offered the assurances during a 25-minute telephone conversation Friday with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The newspaper said the conversation capped a flurry of diplomatic protests over the shutdown of the groups and unusually sharp criticism from the United States and Europe.
For the first time in decades, the fate of U.S. foreign aid to Egypt, a total of $1.3 billion annually, hovered over the Obama administration's deliberations. Because of a new congressional restriction that requires the State Department to certify that Egypt's government is committed to democracy, no money has been sent since the new fiscal year began in October.
The certification, not expected before January at the earliest, would be hard to justify in the wake of the crackdown by the military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, on as many as 10 local and international democracy-building organizations. The groups raided Thursday include at least four U.S.-financed organizations, among them the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which have close ties to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"Raids on the very organizations working to support that transition belie the SCAF's promises, and the promise of a democratic future for Egypt," Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said in a statement Friday.
The raids were the latest in a series of actions by Egypt's military rulers that have raised questions about their commitment to a transition to democracy after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
The authorities have said that the raids were part of an investigation into illegal foreign financing of nongovernmental groups, but local activists accused the government of trying to stifle criticism amid increasing calls for the military to cede power to civilian leaders.