KINSHASA, ZAIRE — Six months after a rebellion erupted in the east, Zaire's capital has become a political vortex.
At the center of the confusion are rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila, President Mobutu Sese Seko, and Etienne Tshisekedi, long-time leader of the nonviolent political opposition in Kinshasa. Each is vying for power over one of Africa's largest, potentially richest, and most strategic countries.
The walls dividing each camp, however, have begun to come down. Mr. Mobutu's party says it is willing to share powers with the rebels - an indication of just how weak and scared the ruling elite has become.
"If it's the price we have to pay for peace and territorial integrity, why not?" says Banza Makualyi, a leader of Mobutu's Popular Revolutionary Movement. "Together we can prepare a consensus. One party can rule after elections."
The opposition can't seem to decide whom to accommodate: an up-and-coming rebel leader in the east or an ailing president who still pulls the strings in Kinshasa.
The main debate in Kinshasa last week was over who would be the next prime minister. The transitional parliament ousted Leon Kengo wa Dondo from the post and is now seeking someone who can assure the survival of both the opposition and ruling political class.
"The political class as a whole is quickly turning to negotiations ... and if they don't cut a deal with Kabila, they will all be marginalized," a Western diplomat says.
Mr. Tshisekedi is a favorite candidate. He has already been prime minister twice during this decade but was fired after falling out with Mobutu. (He insists he still holds the post and has weekly "cabinet meetings" at his house.) By refusing to collaborate with the corrupt leadership, he has become a hero of the poor. But before the democracy movement began in the late 1980s, Tshisekedi was a minister in Mobutu's regime and a member of his party.
What is unclear is whether Tshisekedi, who has a strong stubborn streak, would be willing to cut a deal with Mr. Kabila, a long-time revolutionary who has apparently received help from neighboring Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.
Before Kabila managed to seize about one-quarter of the country, it appeared as though he thought Tshisekedi might be useful in garnering support in Kinshasa and the diamond-rich Kasai region, where Tshisekedi was born. But with the steady retreat of government troops, it has become clear that the only thing Kabila needs is military momentum.
Sensing his strong hand, last week Kabila accused the opposition of doing little to end three decades of dictatorship and of being corrupted by Mobutu. In fact, Tshisekedi and his camp were instrumental in opening Zaire up to multiparty politics, for which Tshisekedi spent time in jail.
But at this point, Tshisekedi, despite his popularity, could end up walking a political tightrope if he becomes prime minister - establishing himself as Kabila's rival.
"If he accepts because his ego is pushing him to be prime minister, he will be trapped," a Western diplomat says. "I don't know if he is clever enough to understand that."
If Tshisekedi is seen as being too close to Mobutu during the transition process, he could be rejected by the rebels. If he is seen as being too cozy with Kabila, he could be shunned by the political class in Kinshasa.
"Everyone is still for Tshisekedi," says Jamala Kalambayi, an unemployed young man debating politics under a tree known as the "People's Parliament." "But we see that Tshisekedi and Kabila are fighting for the same thing. Tshisekedi wants the dictator to go. Kabila also wants the dictator to go. It's the same battle."
But as Mobutu's power wanes, Kabila and Tshisekedi will no longer be in the same ring, and further divisions could emerge.
The outcome of any negotiated settlement to the crisis and the continued momentum of Tshisekedi's democracy movement hinge on whether Kabila, the real power broker at this point, models himself as a democrat or a dictator.
"War usually only prepares the bed for a dictatorship. War rarely prepares the bed for democracy," says Kibassa Maliba, leader of a breakaway wing of the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress. "The man leading the war must be of very strong will to bring democracy. We'll see if Kabila has that will."