HARARE, Zimbabwe — In the biggest anti-government demonstration in decades, thousands of Zimbabweans marched through the capital on Saturday demanding the resignation of the president, after a dramatic military takeover days earlier.
It was a remarkable display of public opposition in a country where, until this week, such gatherings were typically quelled with force.
Thirty-seven years after he came to power, Robert Mugabe now finds his rule under threat on multiple fronts. First, on Tuesday, there was the late-night military operation that placed him under house arrest. Then, on Friday, his own party voted for him to be recalled. And Saturday, a diverse array of opposition groups marched through the city in a buoyant demonstration against Mugabe that felt like a citywide party celebrating his possible ouster.
Mugabe's fate remains unclear. He is embroiled in negotiations with the military and South African government intermediaries, and so far he has resisted calls for his resignation. But Saturday’s demonstration nevertheless sent a clear signal that opposition to his rule is massive and diverse.
The rally had the air of collective catharsis. For decades, Mugabe had targeted a broad array of his own citizens: farmers from the white minority whose land was seized, political activists who were arrested or simply vanished, even Harare's street vendors, who Mugabe has tried to evict.
Members of those groups, and many others, converged on the country's State House, waving flags and signs that read, “Mugabe must go.”
“If we had tried this three weeks ago, hundreds of people would have been dead in the street,” said Terry Angelos, a 78-year-old man at the march.
It was the first time in decades that Zimbabweans had been able to protest Mugabe without fear of arrest.
“It’s like our second independence day,” said Martin Matanisa, 33, who works for an agricultural program. “For a while it’s just been oppression. This is the first time we’ve been able to stand here and protest.”
Across the city, soldiers in armed personnel carriers observed the demonstrations, not intervening, and at times snapping selfies. They were greeted and praised.
“Zimbabwe’s army is the voice of the people,” one popular sign read.
When Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo, a senior army official, arrived to address the crowd, thousands of people grew quiet. It was clear that they were waiting for an announcement that Mugabe had agreed to step down.
“We are proud of what you have done and the solidarity you have shown,” Moyo said. “But you can't achieve everything in one day.”
The crowd appeared briefly deflated. With each day, it has become increasingly clear that if Mugabe does step down, it will be through a tense negotiation. The military has said it will not push him out, even though it has effectively taken control of the country. The state broadcaster later said that talks would continue on Sunday. The central committee of ZANU-PF, the ruling party, is also expected to hold a meeting to dismiss Mugabe as its leader, but the legal consequences of such a move were unclear.
Still, the demonstration was a remarkable step in Zimbabwe's break with from the 93-year-old president, the world's oldest head of state. He was once seen as a hero of Zimbabwe's liberation from British colonialism, serenaded in 1980 by reggae icon Bob Marley, who wrote the song “Zimbabwe” about the country's struggle for independence.
The military stepped in after Mugabe indicated he was setting the stage for his unpopular wife Grace to succeed him.
On Saturday, demonstrators tore down the sign from Robert Mugabe Road and stomped on it. At the Zimbabwe Grounds, where Mugabe gave his first independence day speech in 1980, thousands of his opponents gathered.
Members of Zimbabwe’s white minority joined the protests, many of them having lost their farms in violent government-led seizures. The land was frequently redistributed to Mugabe loyalists.
Elaine Rich and her family were given two hours to flee their farm in 2004.
“I’ve been waiting 37 years for this,” said the middle-aged woman, carrying a Zimbabwean flag.
“I’m glad with this show of unity to force Mugabe out,” said Joice Mujuru, whom Mugabe fired as vice president in 2014.
“We have to march to State House to remove the tyrant,” said Oppah Muchinguri, the current minister of water who has backed the military takeover.
Still, some Zimbabweans expressed concern that the country was offering legitimacy to military and civilian leaders with a questionable track record.
“We cannot afford to give another set of leaders a blank check or license to dictate,” said Ibbo Mandaza, a Zimbabwean academic.
The military commanders who detained Mugabe appear to support former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s successor. But both Western officials and many Zimbabweans have raised concerns about the prospect of a Mnangagwa-led government. In 2000, in a cable later released by WikiLeaks, the State Department said he was “widely feared and despised throughout the country” and “could be an even more repressive leader” than Mugabe.
As of Saturday, Mnangagwa's whereabouts remained unknown. It was his dismissal earlier this month as vice president which set off the process that culminated in Mugabe’s house arrest.