The Foreign Ministry announced last week that Egypt had joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a dialogue partner. A memorandum of understanding was signed by the current chairman of the organisation, SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming and First Deputy Foreign Minister of Egypt Hamdi Sanad Loza, during a ceremony in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent on 14 September. The SCO’s permanent members are China, India, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan.
The memorandum covers cooperation over security, countering the illegal production and sale of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, trade, investment and energy, said a press release. A similar agreement was signed with Qatar during the same ceremony, and Saudi Arabia is in the process of negotiating its own agreement.
Egypt’s accession will help strengthen cooperation with SCO members in areas that include trade, investment, energy, transport and tourism, the Egyptian deputy foreign minister said during his meeting with Zhang. He added that it is also a step towards “supporting regional security and stability”.
The importance of the bloc is increasing, says Ahmed Kandil, head of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies’ international relations unit.
The SCO includes two permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) members — China and Russia — and UNSC observer for 2022 India. Its member states represent a quarter of the world’s GDP and half its population, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev told the SCO Summit held in Samarkand on 15 and 16 September.
SCO plays an important role in combating terrorism and promoting stability in central Asia which aligns with Egypt’s interests, explained Kandil, not least, as Mirziyoyev stressed to summit participants — when it comes to building “a more peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan”.
The importance of the bloc for Egypt is underlined by the fact many of its members are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, said Kandil. The initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to enhance its international relations, trade, and economic development.
By joining SCO Egypt aims to diversify its partners, says expert in international relations Eman Zahran. The negative repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian war, especially on food security and energy, have served to reinforce the importance of “diversifying allies” in order to strengthen stability at home, she explained.
Volatility in the global economy caused by the pandemic and the Ukrainian crisis has also made it imperative to establish alternative standby credit facilities.
Egypt’s dialogue partner status had been on the cards for years, according to Kandil, but implementation had been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Cairo remained sensitive, he added, about full membership of the grouping lest it be viewed in the West as a hostile move, especially given the current anti-China and -Russia mood in Washington.
While keen not to appear to be taking sides — Cairo made its position clear on Ukraine and condemned military action — Kandil said Egypt’s principles nonetheless align with those of the SCO as outlined in Mirziyoyev’s statement to the summit: “The basis for the SCO’s international attractiveness is its non-bloc status, openness, non-targeting of third countries or international organisations, equality and respect for the sovereignty of all participants, refusal to interfere in domestic affairs and the prevention of political confrontation and unhealthy rivalry.”
The bloc introduced dialogue partner status for any state or organisation that shares the goals and principles of the SCO and wishes to establish relations of equitable and mutually beneficial partnerships in 2008.
Egypt’s membership, Kandil stressed, should not be seen as Cairo siding with China and Russia against the West. Egypt, he said, is keen to cooperate with any international party that can help it achieve its Vision 2030 strategy and further security and development.
In July, during a meeting of SCO members’ industry ministers, the development of a roadmap for expanding the number of national currencies used in international settlements was announced. The move, explained Kandil, is intended, in part at least, to help overcome sanctions against members of the bloc, but will also be useful for Egypt where hard currency reserves are under pressure from current economic conditions.
Zahran believes increasing the number of national currencies used in mutual settlements and providing alternatives to the dollar or euro can only be of benefit to Egypt.
Not, stressed Kandil, that Egypt is seeking a wholesale replacement of the current system. Cairo, he said, remains keen on reaching an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and it is committed to servicing its debts but also wants to diversify the currencies in which it can trade.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.