REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- The Egyptian government has agreed to return equipment and money seized Thursday from Egyptian, American and other nongovernmental groups and to begin formal talks over their disputed participation in Egypt's political system, U.S. State Department officials said Friday.
U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson “sought and received Egyptian leadership assurances that the raids will cease and property will be returned immediately,” said a statement by a senior administration official who asked to be identified as such.
Yet officials acknowledged that the groups’ activities will remain suspended indefinitely, including their participation in observing the round of parliamentary elections that is scheduled for next week.
Egyptian activists and U.S. officials reacted with outrage when authorities seized laptops, cellphones, other equipment and cash from the Egyptian offices of at least 17 nongovernmental groups. Among them were three U.S.-based groups: the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, and International Republican Institute.
The 17 groups say their activities are nonpartisan and aimed at helping the Egyptian people organize and learn technical skills involved in democratic government. But the country's military rulers have strongly resisted the organizations' work, in some cases viewing them as foreign meddling in their domestic politics, and have launched an investigation into alleged violations of Egyptian law.
Egyptian activists complain that the nation's military rulers, who have been in charge since former President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February, have been moving too slowly toward democracy, with presidential elections not planned until the middle of 2012. Several hundred protesters again gathered in central Cairo on Friday to press for change.
A State Department official said the new talks will involve “all the stakeholders” -– the Egyptian leadership, leaders of the nongovernmental groups, U.S. officials and others. He acknowledged that U.S. and Egyptian officials have been discussing the disagreement for months, without resolving it, but said the new and more formal arrangement offered new hope.
The raids have brought long-strained relations between the Obama administration and the Egyptian authorities to a new low, and raised questions about whether the United States should continue its full $1.3 billion annual aid package for the Egyptian military.
U.S. officials said they expect the groups to be able to resume all their previous activities.
Patterson “has also made clear that we expect all international NGOs, including those that receive U.S. government support, be able to return to normal operations as soon as possible in support of the democratic transition underway in Egypt,” the senior official's statement said.
Photo: Egyptian protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Credit: Filippo Monteforte / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images