Egyptian security forces and police have stormed non-governmental organisation (NGO) offices throughout the country, temporarily detaining employees and searching computer files, an activist and security official have said.
The official MENA news agency said 17 "civil society organisations", including two prominent US-based pro-democracy groups that run programmes training political parties, had been targeted as part of an investigation into foreign funding of such groups.
"The public prosecutor has searched 17 civil society organisations, local and foreign, as part of the foreign funding case," MENA cited the Egyptian prosecutor's office as saying.
"The search is based on evidence showing violation of Egyptian laws including not having permits."
Gamal Eid, the head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said an employee trapped inside one of the NGOs called him to say security forces were removing laptop computers.
The raids targeted local offices of the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), among others, said a security source and employees at some of the organisations.
"Security forces who said they were from the public prosecutor are raiding our offices as we speak. They are grabbing all the papers and laptops as well," said one person working at NDI.
The NDI said in an emailed statement that the raid took place on its offices in Cairo, Alexandria and Assiut, from where police confiscated equipment and documents.
"Cracking down on organisations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt's historic transition sends a disturbing signal," Kenneth Wollack, NDI president, was quoted as saying.
US expresses deep concern
The US expressed deep concern over the raids and urged Egyptian authorities to immediately halt "harassment" of non-governmental organisation staff.
The US state department said the raids were "inconsistent with the bilateral cooperation we have had over many years", hinting it could review its $1.3bn in military aid if they continued.
"We do have a number of new reporting and transparency requirements on funding to Egypt that we have to make to Congress," Victoria Nuland, the state department spokeswoman, 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."
Nuland said US 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.
Her comments come after stinging criticism from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the "systematic degradation" of women during protests in Cairo this month in which 17 people were killed, saying it "disgraces the state".
Germany's Foreign Ministry said it would summon Egypt's ambassador in Berlin on Friday after the raid targeted the German-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is close to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.
The security source said employees at the offices were not allowed to leave while the searches continued.
The NDI and IRI, loosely associated with the US Democratic and Republican political parties, say they take a neutral political stance, fostering democracy in Egypt by training members of nascent parties in democratic processes.
"The National Democratic Institute has been training new parties ... in how to participate in elections," a leading member of a liberal party said on condition of anonymity.
"This has been with the full knowledge of authorities and was not clandestine."
The NDI said on its website that it worked towards fostering exchanges of ideas between countries regarding democratic transitions.
The IRI said was working with Egyptian activists to strengthen their knowledge of political party development, campaign strategy and public opinion research.
Egypt's military has vowed to investigate how pro-democracy and human rights organisations are funded and has said repeatedly it will not tolerate foreign interference in the country's affairs.
Some Egyptian rights groups that have been at the vanguard of protests are demanding that the army, in power since February, hand power swiftly to elected civilians