Can Zimbabweans Catch The Revolutionary Fires That Have Engulfed The Middle East?

“Yes, Zimbabweans will wait for you start doing it before they think of joining you,” responded a workmate.

The two had been watching with keen interest events unfolding in Egypt where millions have invaded the streets to rid themselves of a 30 year old dictatorship under incumbent leader Hosni Mubarak.

Some observers say the Egyptian political situation bears striking similarities with that of Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe still clings to power despite allegations he stole the 2008 election from Movement of Democratic Change leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Political commentators say both countries are still under the rule of octogenarian leaders who have ruled their countries for 30 years and do not hesitate to use coercive methods to repel any challenge to their rule. Both countries have leaders who rely on the loyal support of the military as bastions of their political survival and both have presided over governments fraught with corruption.

Weeks before the Egyptian protests, the world also saw Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali being overthrown by angry protestors who said they had enough of bad governance.

Prominent political commentator, John Makumbe, said Zimbabweans who were slowly recovering from economic hardships may decide to use the same methods that have been used by angry protestors in Egypt and Tunisia.

“Many people now have full stomachs. They can afford to actually participate in political activity,” said Makumbe. “They can organise and gather and actually do fantastic things. When people are starving, they wake up and look for the next meal and so a dictator can harass them and do all kinds of things to them.”

Tsvangirai last week told Fox News in Davos that oppression was being resented and people all over the world, including Zimbabweans, were justified in demanding for their rights.

“That was the whole purpose of our struggle for the last 10 years,” he said, adding: “The aspect of incumbents leaving power to their children, dynasties, as we may call it that is very resented by the people.”

However, Tsholotsho North Member of Parliament Professor Jonathan Moyo said the Arab style protests in Zimbabwe were a “pipe dream”.

Moyo claimed Tsvangirai was funded and supported by the same governments that have been propping up Mubarak’s regime in Cairo.

“It’s a case of one puppet laughing at another puppet and not seeing the irony,” Moyo was quoted in the media, “He is claiming it will happen in his own country. If it does happen in Zimbabwe, surely the puppet would be the target.”

The public expressed mixed feelings about events in the Middle East with some saying it can never happen in Zimbabwe for different reasons.

“Zimbabweans fear being shot at if they run into the streets,” says Arnold Matonga, a cell phone dealer in Harare. “Many still remember how in 1998 soldiers were deployed in residential areas to torture those implicated as having taken part in food riots. Besides, Zimbabweans are preoccupied with survival.”

Cynthia Mahlangu, a teacher at a primary school in Harare, said “Zimbabweans have had several cases in the past 10 years that should have provoked mass uprisings but they squandered them.”

She cited the acute food, cash and power shortages experienced in the past few years and the 2008 cholera catastrophe that killed thousands as potential cases that should have provided the spark for mass protests.

She also said the withholding of election results for a month in 2008 by Mugabe was another test of the patience of Zimbabweans and was a potential opportunity for them to take to the streets but there was no action.

According to Mahlangu, the closest case of an uprising was in December 2008 when civilians failed to join soldiers who went looting shops in protest over cash shortages.

Some said Tsvangirai no longer had the energy to stir such protests after fighting Mugabe’s regime for a decade.

“He no longer has the strength to face Mugabe because he knows how vicious a dictator he can be,” says Tymon Malunga, another Harare resident.

“Tsvangirai feels he would rather concentrate on pushing Mugabe to implement democratic reforms so that he can assume power through the ballot,” said Malunga. “Comments he made in Davos are mere grandstanding by him. He is the least person who would want Zimbabwe to slide into chaos that would create a power vacuum. There is no guarantee he is the one who would fill up that vacuum should Mugabe be forced out through popular revolt. He knows the military will simply take over should Mugabe be overthrown.”

“He is also aware Zimbabweans will not heed his calls for an uprising. We saw this in 2003 when his calls for the final push failed. Being someone who has represented a very strong sentiment within the populace, it was strange that he was brutalised by Mugabe’s regime in Highfields in 2007 but that was not enough to galvanise Zimbabweans into action.

“Besides, the mere mention of a protest will see war veterans and militant supporters of Mugabe bussed into the city centre to repel the protest. We saw it a few years ago when a march organised by the NCA (National Constitutional Assembly) was violently broken down by war veterans armed with sticks.”

Others, however, said Mugabe should be defeated through the ballot while some said they were banking on divine intervention given Mugabe’s twilight age.