Ultra Violence

How Egypt’s soccer mobs are threatening the revolution.

Wednesday's lethal soccer riots in the Suez Canal town of Port Said, which left more than 73 spectators and security personnel dead, marks a watershed moment in Egypt after the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. This tragedy is not simply a story of a match gone horribly awry: It will have important and wide-ranging political ramifications, further isolate militant, highly politicized, violence-prone fan groups, single out the police for renewed criticism, and strengthen calls for the imposition of law and order.

Initial reports said the violence erupted during a match between storied Cairo club Al Ahly, Egypt's most popular team, and Premier League team Al Masry, with only a minimal number of security forces in the stadium. While Wednesday's deadly incident constitutes the worst soccer-related violence in an Egyptian stadium in the country's history, it is not the first time that militant fan groups -- or "ultras," modeled on similar groups in Italy and Serbia -- have invaded the pitch. The incident is but one of a series of violent events involving soccer fans since Mubarak's fall.

As in April, when fans of Al Ahly's arch-rival Zamalek club invaded the pitch during the post-Mubarak era's first African Cup match against a Tunisian team, rumors were swirling in Egypt about the reasons for Wednesday's incident. Some Egyptians speculated that the security forces deliberately allowed the clashes to take place to prove that the police are needed to avoid a breakdown of law and order. Others suggested that Egypt's military rulers engineered the lack of a police presence in a bid to provoke the ultras and further undermine their credibility in a protest-weary country frustrated with the country's downward economic spiral.

Neither assumption is totally off the wall. Ultras clashed with security forces in Egyptian stadiums almost weekly for the four years before Mubarak's fall and have been engaged in running battles in the past year in which scores of people were killed and thousands wounded. Ultras played a key role in the 18-day uprising and afterwards, including the storming of State Security Services offices in February, the hours-long siege of the Israeli Embassy in September, and in street clashes near Tahrir Square in November and December, in which more than 50 people were killed and thousands injured.

The stakes are high for the ultras, with leaders effectively having lost control of a rank and file that has swelled in recent years with thousands of disaffected, unemployed, and often uneducated youth who believe it is payback time against a police force that is widely despised (the ultras' motto: "All Cops Are Bastards"). After the clashes at the Tunisia match in April, in which no one was killed, the leaders discussed suspending their activities. They are certain to take pause after the shocking number of deaths in Port Said.

But can they rein in the radicals? Beyond the payback factor, the absence of security in the stadiums means that for the first time in their history, the ultras own the venue. At the slightest provocation -- a controversial decision by a referee, for example -- the crowd goes berserk. That is all the more true for militant fans who see themselves as the club's only true supporters and view managers as Mubarak appointees and players as hired guns who will switch allegiance whenever another club makes a better offer.

The violence of the ultras is directed as much against those of rival clubs as it is against the security forces. The anti-Mubarak protests of a year ago were the first time that fans of Ahly, which was founded in the early 20th century as the club of the nationalists and opponents of British colonial rule, and its fierce rival Zamalek, the club of the Brits, their Egyptian associates, and the monarchy, set their differences aside to stand shoulder-by-shoulder in Tahrir Square. Ahead of an upcoming match scheduled for Feb. 7, Zamalek's ultras, the White Knights, last week called on their Ahlawy counterparts to agree to a truce. "We are asking for an end to the bloodshed and to reconcile and unite for the sake of Egypt," the White Knights said in a statement on their Facebook page. Ultras Ahlawy replied with a smiley.

The match is now -- wisely -- suspended, but the exchange signaled awareness on the part of the ultras' leaders that the time had come to bury their war hatchets. They know that Egyptians are growing increasing intolerant of their violence and militancy, as evidenced by recent Gallup and other polls. Wednesday's violence suggests that the rank and file see matters differently, and will not take direction from anyone.

The conspiracy theorists may be on to something: The riots in Port Said will likely strengthen the hand of those in the ruling military council who want to crack down hard on the ultras, who have formed the backbone of street protests that have not quieted down even though Egypt has seated an elected parliament and will soon choose a new president. And this time, it seems, the Egyptian people will be with them.



Canceling the Mullahs' Credit Card

How to sever Iran's financial lifeline.

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, better known as SWIFT, is a member-owned cooperative that provides some 10,000 financial institutions worldwide with the means to exchange secure electronic financial messages. If you've ever transferred funds from one bank account to another, you've probably used SWIFT's ubiquitous secure messaging system. But on Feb. 2, the network will receive a different kind of message from the U.S. Congress: Stop facilitating Iranian financial transactions that violate U.S. and European laws.

The Senate Banking Committee is now hard at work on an amendment to new sanctions legislation making its way through Congress known as the Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act, filed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), now recovering from a recent stroke, inspired the amendment, and in the spirit of bipartisanship, his colleagues are carrying it forward.

Based just outside Brussels and overseen by the National Bank of Belgium, SWIFT is the electronic bloodstream of the global financial system. It is composed of the most powerful financial institutions in the world. While other companies can enable secure financial transactions, SWIFT is the clear market leader. In other words, this legislation could have far-reaching ramifications.

Tehran uses SWIFT's technology to conduct business with its trading partners, to sell its oil, to raise capital for its energy sector, to procure energy-related equipment and technology, and to buy and sell other goods and services. Indeed, 19 Iranian banks and 25 Iranian entities reportedly used SWIFT more than 2 million times in 2010. These transactions, the Wall Street Journal noted in a recent editorial, amounted to $35 billion in trade with Europe alone. And they almost certainly violate existing sanctions laws. Cutting off this source of cash could be hugely consequential for those who seek to peaceably halt the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon.

SWIFT represents one of Tehran's last entry points into the world financial system. In recent years, the United States and the European Union have sanctioned scores of banks, energy companies, and other entities under the control of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) -- which Washington has designated a terrorist organization -- for their connections to nuclear proliferation and terrorist activities. This includes banks like Mellat, Sepah, Saderat, Post, and the Central Bank of Iran.

Opponents of further Iran sanctions will argue that eliminating Iran's access to SWIFT will destroy the Iranian economy. This was a common refrain during the legislative battle over Congress's bid to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, the Treasury Department's designation of 23 IRGC-controlled banks, and the 2010 congressional legislation imposing secondary sanctions on financial institutions that transact with the designated banks.

But even though this concern has not yet come to pass, it should not be dismissed out of hand. Like the Central Bank sanctions that President Barack Obama signed into law in December 2011, any new legislation should allow Iranian banks access to SWIFT to buy food, medicine, and medical devices. It should also allow Iran to sell some of its oil to mitigate the risk of a spike in global oil prices, as long as those sales meet guidelines on oil trades governed by existing U.S. law.

But for all of the warnings against sparking a humanitarian crisis in Iran, it's important to remember that there's an equally strong humanitarian justification for sanctions that deter the most dangerous state sponsor of worldwide terrorism from crossing the nuclear threshold. One can only imagine the humanitarian crises an Iranian nuclear strike could precipitate.

In today's uncertain economy, some Wall Street purists may also find it unsettling that a system so vital to the global financial system could be denied to anyone -- even the violent, repressive regime in Tehran. There are also concerns that SWIFT could become a political football in regional conflicts. China, for example, could use this precedent to agitate for the expulsion of Taiwanese banks from the SWIFT system. U.S. administration officials also may fear the rise of a SWIFT competitor that would cater to the needs of China and other countries and that would place less of a priority on preventing money laundering, nuclear proliferation, or terrorism finance.

These potentially troubling scenarios are not to be taken lightly. But they should not absolve SWIFT of its responsibility to abide by its own bylaws, which require that "its services should not be used to facilitate illegal activities" and that can prohibit access if a "user is subject to sanctions." Moreover, senior executives of the global financial institutions that form the board of SWIFT have the power to expel a user who "has adversely affected … SWIFT's reputation, brand, or goodwill."

That is an authority that SWIFT's executives should exercise if they are concerned about their reputations and that of this important cooperative. Indeed, SWIFT's integrity and reliability have made it the unquestioned market leader over the years. Adhering to its own rules will only serve to reinforce the image of transparency it seeks to project.

SWIFT should also abide by local laws. As a SWIFT spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal, "all decisions on the legitimacy of financial transactions under applicable regulations … rest with financial institutions and the competent international and national authorities." In the United States and the European Union, the laws are quite clear about the responsibilities of international institutions for dealing with a great many Iranian financial institutions.

The European Central Bank's own guidelines are particularly specific about the grounds for denying access to Target2, the system that settles transactions in euros through the SWIFT gateway. These guidelines bar access to those engaged in "money laundering and the financing of terrorism, proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities and the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems." This language describes the Iranian regime to the letter.

The Obama administration has sought to persuade key legislators that it is better positioned to pursue this matter quietly. After all, it was former Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey who adopted this successful approach in persuading scores of financial institutions to terminate their ties to IRGC banks. And there may be some lingering sensitivities between SWIFT and the U.S. government that could complicate Washington's reported reliance on SWIFT for important information.

But if the past few years have taught us anything, it is that sanctions against Iran often don't move forward without congressional pressure and that legislation is useful leverage in persuading international companies, not to mention their governments, to pass and enforce their own sanctions. The Obama administration, for example, initially resisted sanctions against the Iranian Central Bank and various oil-market sanctions, but after legislators passed them into law, the administration embraced them with enthusiasm. The Central Bank sanctions, co-authored by Menendez and Kirk in December 2011, have had an immediate impact. In January, Europe imposed a voluntary embargo on Iranian oil -- another factor that likely led to the Iranian rial dropping by 50 percent, forcing the regime to make painful budget choices.

There are reasonable concerns about SWIFT sanctions. With any luck, the looming congressional debate will address them and result in well-crafted legislation. Like its precedents, whatever new law emerges should be flexible in both design and application by providing the administration with the ability to issue waivers and exceptions.

An even better outcome would be for SWIFT's board of directors to take action themselves. The smartest sanctions, after all, are those that encourage people to change course on their own.