WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expressed deep concern on Thursday after Egyptian police raided offices of U.S.-backed pro-democracy and human rights groups, saying the harassment should stop immediately and hinting that Washington could review its $1.3 billion in military aid if the raids continue.
"The United States is deeply concerned that Egyptian judicial and police officials raided the offices of a number of non-governmental organizations today," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
"This action is inconsistent with the bilateral cooperation we have had over many years," Nuland said.
"We call on the Egyptian government to immediately end the harassment of NGO staff, return all property and resolve this issue immediately."
Egyptian prosecutors and police raided offices of 17 pro-democracy and human rights groups on Thursday in what rights defenders described as a campaign against them by the military rulers.
The official MENA news agency said the groups had been targeted as part of an investigation into foreign funding of such organizations, which included the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House, a democratic watchdog group.
Nuland said U.S. officials had been in touch both with Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri and with Egypt's ambassador in Washington to underscore Washington's concern.
"We made strong representations and we want to see the harassment end," Nuland said.
The United States gives Egypt's military about $1.3 billion in direct aid and Nuland indicated this could be difficult to push through Congress if the situation does not improve.
"We do have a number of new reporting and transparency requirements on funding to Egypt that we have to make to Congress," Nuland said. "The Egyptian government is well aware of that and it certainly needs to be aware of that in the context of how quickly this issue gets resolved."
Three of the U.S.-based groups, NDI, IRI and Freedom House, condemned the raids, with some saying it marked an escalation of repression seen under former President Hosni Mubarak before he was toppled by popular protests in February.
The NDI and IRI, which are loosely associated with the U.S. Democratic and Republican political parties and receive U.S. government funding, say they take a neutral political stance, fostering democracy in Egypt by training members of nascent parties in democratic processes.
Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House, said the crackdown should spur the Obama administration to take a fresh look at its continued funding of the Egyptian military.
"In the current fiscal environment, the United States must not subsidize authoritarianism in Egypt while the Egyptian government is preventing NGOs from implementing democracy and human rights projects subsidized by the US taxpayer," Dunne said in a statement.