CAIRO/ISTANBUL – “They sicced a dog on him,” says Taher Omar Huru, a 47-year-old Ethiopian refugee and a local community leader in Cairo, pointing to different body parts. “The dog bit him here, and here and here … His only crime was being Ethiopian.”
In recent weeks, harassment, hate-speech and violence against Ethiopian refugees in Egypt has grown increasingly common, adds Huru, as the long-running dispute comes to a head between Egypt and Ethiopia over the use of the Nile River.
Three hundred million people depend on the Nile to survive, and in Egypt, 95% of the population lives along the river.
Egypt is downstream of Ethiopia, and Ethiopia has built a dam.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has taken nine years and nearly $5 billion to build, and the reservoir behind it is just starting to fill. The process going forward will take years, but Ethiopia says the dam will provide electricity to 65 million people and help lift the country out of poverty.
Egypt sees the possibility of lower water levels as a threat to its very existence.
Ethiopian refugees in Egypt are caught in the middle.
“When I tell someone where I’m from,” says Huru, “they immediately respond, ‘You are cutting off our water.’”
Online, Egyptians and Ethiopians are taunting each other.
Ethiopian TikTok users suggest Egypt soon will be completely cut off from the Nile, which would make the country uninhabitable.
Egyptian users retort with posts about Egypt’s considerable military prowess.
One Ethiopian woman smiles and dances next to a post that has an Egyptian flag and says, “You can’t fill without permission so [if] you do it [you] will get bombed.”
There is additional writing over her post that says “We already started filling the dam.”
Egypt is in no immediate danger of suffering a sharp decrease in the amount of water, according to experts, but their long-term fears are warranted.
“One question that keeps coming up is: Will Ethiopia be willing to release enough water from the reservoir to help mitigate a drought downstream?” writes John Mukum Mbaku, a Brookings Institute senior fellow.
This fear and the online bickering are fueling tensions on the ground, says Michael Thabet, a 28-year-old architect and Cairo resident.
“The videos provoke people to anger,” he says. “They show people claiming they can stop our country from getting water, as is our right.”
Refugees are among the poorest people in Egypt, where a third of the population of 100 million already live below the poverty line.
And this tension is making everyday life even harder for Ethiopian refugees, and refugees perceived to be Ethiopian, according to Nour Khalil, a legal consultant for refugees and migrants.
“For example, one young Sudanese man tried to get on a microbus,” says Khalil, “And the driver said to him: ‘You are Ethiopian, and you want to block our water. Blacks are not allowed on this microbus.’”
Egypt wants a legal guarantee that when there is a drought, Ethiopia won’t hog the water. Ethiopia says the dam won’t affect Egypt’s access to water.
Leaders are negotiating this month, as the reservoir starts to fill with rain, over Egyptian objections. So far, negotiations have been marred by threats of walkouts and delays, from both Egypt and Sudan.
Critics of Ethiopia say that without a legally binding agreement regulating the use of the dam, the country could devastate its downstream neighbors and violate international law.
Egypt’s critics say it has long used its power to bully its neighbors and control the Nile.
Sub-Saharan refugees in Egypt say anger on the ground is misdirected against them, the people who fled their countries, looking for safety in Egypt.
“If Egyptians go thirsty,” says Haru. “We will go thirsty, too.”