By Jill Dougherty and Jamie Crawford
In his downtown office in Washington, D.C., Leslie Campbell is emailing staff in the Cairo office of the National Democratic Institute. They're locked out, their office stripped of computers, personal laptops, documents and even cash after an armed raid by Egyptian security forces.
A fax hits his mailbox, a scan of a handwritten report by institute's country director.
"It's a short summary of what happened," Campbell said. "The security forces entering, refusing to allow people to make phone calls, including to the embassy, and then taking all the computers, carrying out safes ... 10 boxes of records, personal computers of staff, and no inventory being made or provided to us."
The raid on the institute, as well as on other U.S., European and Egyptian democracy-support organizations, is unprecedented, even under former President Hosni Mubarak, Campbell said.
His perspective was echoed by others:
"What happened, I describe as an armed robbery under the protection of a legal umbrella. To storm, search and confiscate in that manner, this never happened in Mubarak's era," said Nasser Amin, an Egyptian human-rights activist and head of The Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, an Egyptian nongovernmental organization that was raided and shut down.
The implications of the raids, according to Campbell: "It says to me that the Egyptian government is serious about trying to control the atmosphere. They seem, and particularly the military commanders, appear to be nervous. They appear to be perhaps unsure, and they are lashing out."
With 1,500 employees in 65 offices around the world, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization funded by the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and private donations.
It helps people in other countries create the building blocks of democracy, training them to create political parties and monitor elections, and helping women run for political office and participate in civic life.
Congress created the institute in 1983, along with a Republican sister organization, the International Republican Institute, also based in Washington. The Republican Institute's offices in Egypt were raided as well.
Thomas Garrett, the Republican Institute's vice president for programs, has a badge he received from Egyptian authorities inviting him to be an election observer.
"There have already been two rounds of the parliamentary election cycle, and IRI was present in both with observers," Garrett said.
He was there for the second round just a few weeks ago, and a group from the Republican Institute and other observers from around the world were getting on planes for the third round, which will take place next week.
Because of the raids, some may not proceed with the trip. But most will, Garrett said.
His organization is "bewildered and confused," Garrett said. "We don't understand what has occurred here."
"We believe the work we do in Egypt is very transparent. For instance, a lot of the training materials we use are available on our website in Arabic. We have been interacting with the Egyptian government for the last several months, answering their questions about the source of our funding, which is the U.S. government; the types of things we intend to do in the country; our plans. And so we're confused as to what prompted the raids."
The raids have outraged Capitol Hill supporters of the Democratic Institute and the Republican Institute. The boards of directors of both organizations include heavy hitters in the capital's political life.
So why would Egypt's military pick a fight with Washington?
They might be trying to send a message, according to Campbell.
"It's a possibility," he said. "There have been what I would call negotiations at the highest diplomatic levels about the aid provided to Egypt. Egypt is the single-largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States in the entire world, and it's a relationship that is fraught. There have been a number of disagreements, particularly post-Mubarak: How should that aid be apportioned? Should the Egyptian government have a veto over which groups get that aid? And so we may have been caught up in that high-stakes diplomatic negotiation."
Egypt receives $1.3 billion a year in aid from the U.S.
Another possible reason for the raids, according to Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch: The military is insecure about "the rising voice of criticism against them, and more importantly, of their attempt to control political space and critical voices over the past months."
In a sign of how seriously the Obama administration is taking the Egyptian raids, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke by phone with Egyptian Field Marshall Tantawi on Friday. A senior U.S. official told CNN that Panetta "conveyed in no uncertain terms his concerns about the attacks on the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations)." The official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the discussions, said the U.S. thinks Tantawi moved quickly to stop the attacks and investigate them. The U.S. also is pointing to his overseeing of elections as a positive sign.
As for all the recent violence, the official said, "None of this is acceptable," but the reality is that "some of it has to be expected," given the country's current state of affairs.
CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report