HARARE, Zimbabwe — They are so different yet so much alike: Egypt and Zimbabwe seem related.
For several weeks Zimbabweans have been glued to their TV sets watching the revolution in Cairo unfold. Both countries are former British dependencies; their arthritic leaders are in their mid-80s and have been in office for 30 years. The two leaders were the best of pals and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe invariably ensuring landed his plane in Cairo when travelling to the Far East; their subjects suffered equally from poverty, corruption and repression.
In the last two weeks Libya’s ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, has joined the club of elderly African dictators on the brink. Zimbabweans are hoping he won’t end up in Harare. He has pretensions to head the African continent which annoy Africans south of the Sahara, especially when he dresses up as a character from a Gilbert & Sullivan opera.
So why do Zimbabweans not occupy Africa Unity Square in the center of Harare and topple a regime long past its sell-by date?
The answer is simple: Zimbabweans are unable to mobilize a critical mass. They have been so bludgeoned over the years — with nothing to show for it — that they have lost their appetite for confrontation. Small bands of protesters make good targets for the riot police.
Zimbabwe's civil society has confined itself to a virtual revolution in Harare courtesy of Al Jazeera, willing the Egyptians on but unable to emulate them.
Even then they are not safe. A former MP Munyaradzi Gwisai and 45 others including trade unionists have been arrested and charged with treason for watching video footage of events in Egypt. They were accused of plotting an Egyptian-style uprising in Zimbabwe.
"On 16 February they held a meeting and the purpose of the meeting was to organize, strategize and implement the removal of a constitutional government of Zimbabwe by unconstitutional means, the Tunisian-Egyptian way," charged prosecutor Edmore Nyazamba. "In their speeches, the accused highlighted that there was a long serving dictator/authoritarian leader, general hunger, poverty, unemployment and capitalist tendencies where wealth is enjoyed by a few individuals while the general populace is suffering."
On Wednesday, the Zimbabweans' lawyer said he would oppose the charge against his clients, who were ordered to remain in custody overnight.
Zimbaweans are asking themselves, 'What was the secret to Egypt’s success?'
“We have lost our fear,” protesters told TV stations. And very simply, Zimbabweans haven’t. Their courage has been knocked out of them. In Egypt’s middle class revolution social networking played an important role. In Zimbabwe internet sites have not yet been used to organize people on a significant scale.
Another key difference is the role of the army. In Egypt the army is adored, particularly after its success in the 1973 war with Israel. In Zimbabwe the army has been suborned, its leaders bought off. The Zimbabwe National Army is a crucial agency of Mugabe’s brutal regime and appears to relish its role in suppressing democracy. The generals regard Zimbabwe's democratic opposition with barely concealed contempt.
In Egypt the former ruling NDP party’s headquarters was the first target of the crowd. In Zimbabwe Mugabe’s Zanu-PF building stands safely above the fray unmolested by any unruly mob.
What is significant in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the absence of anti-imperialist rhetoric. The emphasis has been on freedom and democracy, not — perhaps with the exception of Yemen — anti-American fist-waving of the Iranian variety.
Muammar Gaddafi represented the divergence when he chastised the Tunisians for chasing away their president.
“Tunisia now lives in fear,” he said in a broadcast. “Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms. And the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or American revolutions.”
The Libyan leader evidently knows little about the events of 1776 or 1917 but that didn’t stop his stream of consciousness. “And what is this for?” Gaddafi continued. "To change Zine al Abidine? Hasn’t he told you he would step down after three years? Be patient for three years and your son stays alive.” It sounded a bit like a threat.
Zimbabweans continued to share notes with their North African counterparts. Tunisian newspapers reported the first lady piling gold bars aboard the presidential jet lifted from Tunisia’s reserve bank. Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, has a similar reputation for acquisitiveness but prefers the allure of diamonds.
Zimbabwe’s first family, like the Bourbons of old, appear to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing from the events of the past month. At the very moment that Mubarak announced his departure for Sharm-el-Sheik, Mugabe’s noisy motorcade swept through downtown Harare in a demonstration of pomp and power. Motorcyclist outriders waved motorists out of the way and assaulted those slow to do so.
“He’s clearly not watching the news,” one observer remarked. And it is true that Zimbabwe’s ruler lives in a world of his own. His glazed vehicle windows protect him from the unappealing realities of the world outside. How much longer will be be an onlooker?
Questions were asked in Zimbabwe's parliament this week as to whether Zimbabwean soldiers were among the mercenaries hired by Gaddafi to suppress the popular revolt in Libya. The Minister of Defence referred the matter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Zimbabwe already plays host to one ex-dictator, Ethiopian tyrant Mengistu Haile Mariam, now Zimbabweans are wondering if they will have to put up with another one. For Zimbabwe’s arrogant post-liberation aristocracy, radicals in Harare have a new word of warning: Libya!