The protest was scheduled for 10 a.m., but at the appointed hour not a single demonstrator was in sight. It was like any other weekday morning on a busy Harare street, bustling with hawkers and beggars, shoppers and businessmen.
Suddenly, 15 men materialized from the crowd, pulling creased signs from beneath their shirts. For a minute or so, they silently held their antigovernment placards aloft. Then as quickly as they appeared, they melted back into street, the yellow cardboard littering the ground the only evidence that any protest had occurred.
Almost a year after Zimbabwe's disputed presidential election, this is the state of Zimbabwe's political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC): frightened, repressed, and increasingly small in number.
Government tactics, including the banning of nearly any public gathering, have largely succeeded in silencing the MDC, which last March nearly swept Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's controversial 23-year leader, from power despite alleged ballot rigging. And a treason trial against MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai and two other party officials has tied the hands of the party's leadership.
The decimation of the MDC has left opponents of Mr. Mugabe with virtually no means of voicing dissent against a government that has overseen widespread food shortages and a tanking economy, and is accused of committing human rights violations.
Here in Harare, where voters overwhelmingly supported the MDC during last year's presidential elections, the party's rank and file is increasingly beginning to question their leader.
"The problem is that man," sighs Steven, a young taxi driver, referring to Mr. Tsvangirai. "He is a little bit of a coward. We ordinary people are more brave than the leaders."
From the backyard cottage office of his fortified suburban house, Mr. Tsvangirai defends the actions of his party since the election, which he and many observer groups say was stolen. If the MDC had called on people to take to the streets in the immediate aftermath of the election, he says, their protest would have been brutally crushed with great loss of life.
"We didn't want to confront the regime at its strongest point," he says, leaning across his desk. "They were prepared to crush us. They were ready for that.... We want to nurture our democratic movement. It's only three years old, and we think it needs more nurturing. We can fight later."
But there are an increasing number of people within the party who say the time to fight may be now and that legal means of opposing the government have been exhausted.
Most of the party's legal challenges to last year's elections and the June 2000 parliamentary elections are either stuck in appeal or have simply been ignored. Public meetings have been banned, and nearly every form of protest, including the wearing of a black armband, can land you in jail.
David Coltart, a mild-mannered lawyer from Bulawayo and a prominent MDC member of Parliament, considers himself one of the party's main doves. After last year's election he spoke forcefully for patience and legal remedies. But even he now acknowledges that the party miscalculated by not having a plan in place to deal with a loss at the polls. He says that stronger action is needed.
"We were perhaps a bit naive. We had no Plan B at the time of the election," says Mr. Coltart. "I think we were overconfident, not only about our ability to win the election but about our ability to expose and prevent the fraud.
"But there has been a dramatic change in the MDC in the last few months," he adds, saying the party is leaning toward defying unjust laws. In a recent meeting in his constituency, Coltart says that party members in his area supported mass action 64 to 4.
But the looming question for MDC leaders is whether enough people would show up for action if called. Harare today bristles with police and crawls with informers. Few people are even willing to admit they supported the MDC in the past election.
Some of the MDC's civil-society partners, most notably the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a group working to strengthen the country's Constitution, have called a number of strikes and marches over the past few years. But most have failed.
NCA chairman Lovemore Madhuku, a thin lawyer in a crumpled suit whose fiery calls for action contrast greatly to Tsvangirai's pleas for caution, says the protests failed because the MDC did not support them. The MDC must be willing to risk the arrest, torture, and perhaps even death of their followers through peaceful protest, he says.
"If Morgan had come out, I think it would made a difference," says Mr. Madhuku. "Now the people are losing faith, there is no doubt about it. He may lose the momentum."
But Tsvangirai and others in the MDC say the failure of the NCA to attract widespread support for their "stay-aways" demonstrate the danger of moving to fast. Any action must be planned carefully. Failed action, they say, is worse than none at all.
Tsvangirai insists that plans are being made, but that he is not at liberty to discuss them. But even he acknowledges that action is difficult while, as he puts it, "the noose" is around his neck.
Tsvangirai and his two co-defendants, who went on trial Feb. 3, face the death penalty for allegedly plotting to assassinate Mr. Mugabe. The MDC says the charges were fabricated to discredit their leader. The government claims that the defendants hired Ari Ben-Menashe, political consultant from Montreal, to kill Mugabe. The defense says that Mr. Ben-Menashe was on the government payroll and was paid to make a tape that would frame Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai admits he is caught between a rock and hard place. "On one hand, people expect Tsvangirai to lead them to freedom, on the other Tsvangirai is facing trial for treason," he says. "The trial has been an issue that has distracted from my work. It has been a hindrance, sometimes an embarrassment."