The Ethiopian-Egyptian Water War Has Begun

The Ethiopian-Egyptian Water War Has Begun

The conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has already started. It’s just happening in cyberspace.

BY 
 Workers move iron girders from a crane at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, near Guba in Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

(Foreignpolicy)—It took only a few weeks to plan the cyberattack—and a few more to abandon the world of ethical hacking for the less noble sort. But they would do anything for the Nile, the four young Egyptians agreed.

With that, the group calling themselves the Cyber_Horus Group in late June hacked more than a dozen Ethiopian government sites, replacing each page with their own creation: an image of a skeleton pharaoh, clutching a scythe in one hand and a scimitar in the other. “If the river’s level drops, let all the Pharaoh’s soldiers hurry,” warned a message underneath. “Prepare the Ethiopian people for the wrath of the Pharaohs.”

“There is more power than weapons,” one of the hackers, who asked not to be identified by name, told Foreign Policy. Also, it was a pretty easy job, the hacker added.

A few weeks later and thousands of miles away, a 21-year-old Ethiopian named Liz applied red lipstick and donned a black T-shirt and jeans. She positioned her phone on her desk and started her own kind of online influence campaign: a TikTok video. She danced to a popular Egyptian song underneath the message, “Distracting the Egyptians while we fill the dam.”

“There’s no other country that can stop us,” said Liz, who has more than 70,000 followers on the app and whose taunting video was met with praise and threats. “It’s our right.”

Rarely have young people been so passionate about an infrastructure project. But the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will be Africa’s largest, is more than just a piece of infrastructure. It has become a nationalistic rallying cry for both Ethiopia and Egypt—two countries scrambling to define their nationhood after years of domestic upheaval. Many Ethiopians and Egyptians are getting involved in the only way they can—online—and fomenting the first African cyberconflict of its kind, one with far-reaching and long-lasting consequences.

Construction of the dam, which was first dreamed up in the 1960s, started in April 2011, weeks after the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Even then, the online tensions between Ethiopians and Egyptians were palpable in the comments sections of seemingly every article about the dam. The discord soon even spilled over into the world of reviews: Today, there are several entries for the GERD on Google Maps, most earning middling 3 to 4 stars ratings, buoyed by five-star ratings with feedback such as, “One of the great architectural dam in the World!” but weighed down by one-star complaints including, “You’re gonna make us die from thirst.”

Many Ethiopians and Egyptians are getting involved in the only way they can—online—and fomenting the first African cyberconflict of its kind.

Tensions escalated this year, as the U.S.-brokered negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt unraveled and new talks mediated by the African Union began. Two issues are at the core: what will happen during a drought and what will happen during a dispute. In terms of the former, Egypt wants the pace of the reservoir filling to be dependent on rains, to ensure a minimum flow if there’s a drought; Ethiopia says such a guarantee is unacceptable. And in terms of disputes, Egypt and Sudan want a resolution mechanism with binding results, but Ethiopia doesn’t.

Construction of the dam was completed in July, and the filling of its reservoir started soon after amid heavy rains but before an agreement between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan was signed. The U.S. government, a top source of aid for both Ethiopia and Egypt, said in August that it would halt some aid to Ethiopia over what it saw as a unilateral move to progress with the dam.