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.
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.”
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.
At the beginning of the year, when Ethiopia’s water minister was asked in a press conference who would control the dam once complete, he looked surprised before responding with a curt, “It’s my dam.” Ethiopians across social media, including Liz, adopted his response as a mantra and hashtag, urging their government to move forward with the project. Some have gone further, saying that the dam should be filled regardless of downstream countries’ positions: One Twitter user wrote, for example, “There is no need of negotiations with crafty Egypt.”
Egyptians online retorted with pleas using the hashtag #Nile4All and threats such as “I proudly volunteer to join my Egyptian army to demolish Ethiopia and its dam,” using hashtags such as #EgyptNileRights.
Social media users from the two countries frequently collide on the Internet, but seem to do so most often on Adel el-Adawy’s Twitter page: As a member of a prominent Egyptian political dynasty, a professor at the American University in Cairo, and the most visible disseminator of the Egyptian perspective on the dam in English, he has amassed a significant following. Adawy, whose pinned tweet is a picture of himself shaking hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, posts frequently about the Nile and Ethiopian affairs, especially when things get sticky.
At the end of June, when Hachalu Hundessa, a popular activist-singer of Ethiopia’s historically marginalized Oromo ethnic group, was killed, the country descended into chaos. Hundreds were killed as protests were either met with state violence or descended into mob violence. Adawy posted frequently, underscoring the fractious situation but also fomenting alarmism, such as when he posted that frustrated Ethiopians were privately asking Egypt to overthrow the Ethiopian government. Soon after one such post, he was bombarded, he said.
“I got around 500 or 600 friend requests on Facebook by Ethiopian accounts. I got messages with insults.… I got people sending me certain links, of course I didn’t open any of them,” he said. Many of the accounts seemed hollow, with little information contained in them. “Getting within an hour or two 600 friend requests is not normal.”
Even on Twitter, some of the engagement on Adawy’s posts comes from suspicious accounts; they lack followers, were recently created, have number-filled usernames, or only post about the dam. But it’s still unclear the extent of coordination or who might be the coordinator.
It’s possible that the engagement is coming from concerned Ethiopians at home and abroad, at the encouragement but not the behest of Ethiopian officials. “I have friends who joined Twitter just for the sake of this. It’s highly emotional and nationalistic,” said Endalkachew Chala, an Ethiopian communications professor at Hamline University in Minnesota.
The Ethiopian government does broadly engage in “computational propaganda,” according to a 2019 report from the Oxford Internet Institute. Agencies there use human-run social media accounts to spread pro-government propaganda, attack the opposition, and troll users. The same goes for the Egyptian government.
Though there is no evidence yet that either government was involved in coordinated social media attacks or in the Cyber_Horus hack, the activity from the past few months still represents a milestone. It has marked the first known time these kinds of digital tools have been used by people from one African country against people from another, said Gilbert Nyandeje, founder and CEO of the Africa Cyber Defense Forum. “It only means one thing. It means we should expect this more and more.”
At their core, all the online attacks, hacks, and discord are driven by the same force: nationalism. For both countries—Egypt since the 2011 fall of Mubarak and Ethiopia since the 2012 death of strongman Prime Minister Meles Zenawi—national identity has been in flux.
Egypt’s Sisi has anchored his legitimacy on a nationalistic platform. At its core has been an emphasis on national security, rounded out by megaprojects such as the Suez Canal expansion and the construction of a new administrative capital city. But at the core of Egyptian identity is the Nile, so bolstering nationalism means defending the Nile, too. And officials have encouraged this outlook: One sleekly produced video shared on Facebook by the Ministry of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs warned, “More than 40 million Egyptians are facing the threat of drought and thirst.… The cause of water shortage is Ethiopia building a dam five times bigger than its needs.”
It has been a show of vulnerability rare in Arab power politics. But the strategy has helped garner global sympathy for Egypt, even as its Nile claims are framed by Ethiopia as the result of unjust colonial-era agreements in which Egypt’s interests were represented by British colonizers.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been unable to manage competing nationalist sentiments growing among different ethnic groups. Abiy came to power in 2018 thanks to a wave of protests that started among young Oromos. Following decades of authoritarianism and the country’s domination by the Tigrayan minority ethnic group, Abiy promised to build bridges spanning ethnic fault lines, cultivate an inclusive nationwide identity, and open up the political space. But even at the beginning of this year, slow progress on fulfilling these promises was encouraging criticism, including from Oromos who said he was abandoning the cause.
Still, the dam provided a unifying issue around which Ethiopians of all ethnic backgrounds could rally. “We do have a lot of divisions—ideological, ethnic, tribal, religious,” said Chala, the Ethiopian professor. “But even though we have these bitter divisions, Ethiopians have overwhelmingly supported this Nile dam especially on social media.”
Even some of Abiy’s most outspoken critics, such as prominent Oromo activist and media mogul Jawar Mohammed, posted frequently about Ethiopia’s right to fill the dam. “Egypt & its backers should know Ethiopia will start filling #GERD in July, agreement or no agreement,” Jawar tweeted in June. Everything changed in the following days, however, after the popular singer Hachalu was killed and Jawar was arrested following accusations of inciting ethnic tensions. While other Oromo activists have echoed Jawar’s support of the dam, they have warned against losing sight of the Oromo struggle and what they regard as Abiy’s failures.
Ethiopian officials, meanwhile, continue to encourage Ethiopians to post about the dam online and often use the #ItsMyDam hashtag in their own social media posts. This use of social media to rally around the dam has also meant that Ethiopia’s massive global diaspora can get involved, without having to worry about frequent in-country Internet shutdowns that otherwise curtail online movements there.
But nationalism creates problems. The thousands of Ethiopian refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants living in Egypt are now facing greater pressure and harassment from Egyptian citizens and authorities since the dam tensions started to heat up, said Hamdy al-Azazy, an Egyptian migrant rights activist currently in Germany. And in Ethiopia, it has meant that any domestic criticism of the dam from an environmentalist point of view—namely, that it could disrupt ecosystems and biodiversity, even within Ethiopia—is met with derision.
And for both countries, surging nationalist sentiment means that it’s harder for officials to agree to, and for the public to accept, compromise. Ethiopia, Egypt, and the quieter Sudan have actually already agreed on most items when it comes to the dam; the main sticking points now are related to dispute resolution, drought contingency plans, and future upstream projects. And yet, much of the online rhetoric remains maximalist, even rejecting items that have already been unanimously decided—such as the existence of an Ethiopian Nile dam in any form—raising the possibility that the online tensions and attacks may not subside anytime soon.
As for the hackers at Cyber_Horus, the group is already planning another attack on Ethiopia. When asked if they would reconsider if an agreement between the two countries was reached, one of the hackers said simply, “Maybe.”