As a power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe was inked Monday, supporters of strongman Robert Mugabe raised their fists in salute. Opposition followers waved open hands. The two gestures – one defiant and one hopeful – hint at the tension underlying this unlikely political marriage in a country where democracy in Africa has been on trial.
As with Kenya's new unity government formed earlier this year, the most welcome aspect of Zimbabwe's grand coalition is an end to political violence. The brutality was triggered by March elections that resulted in massive government interference in a June runoff.
Beyond a return to calm, it's impossible to know whether this team of enemies can find the trust and will to restore one of Africa's most troubled nations to the jewel it once was.
The deal defies the will of voters since it leaves significant power in the hands of Mr. Mugabe, the octogenarian autocrat who has ruled and ruined this once humming commercial and agricultural engine in southern Africa.
Mugabe, at the helm of Zimbabwe for nearly three decades, will stay on as president and head a cabinet of 31 ministers – with the balance of power slightly tipped to the divided opposition. Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), becomes prime minister, handling the country's mountain-sized problems. He'll also lead a sort of über council to oversee Mugabe's cabinet. Whether this cumbersome tandem of ministers will pull together or pull apart remains to be seen.
But the real power, the security forces, favors Mugabe. He retains control over the Army and intelligence services which set upon Mugabe opponents in the wake of a first round of elections March 29.
This halvsies agreement rides roughshod over voters in that election, which Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party lost at both the parliamentary and presidential levels. Indeed, Mugabe has been losing the confidence of Zimbabweans for years. Millions of them have voted with their feet, fleeing the world's worst inflation (now over 11 million percent per year), unemployment of over 80 percent, and widespread hunger. The UN forecasts that about 45 percent of the remaining population will soon suffer "food insecurity."
Disappointing agreements are often the nature of political compromise. Mugabe obviously still retains influence through his status as his country's liberator from white rule, and through the support of African leaders such as South African President Thabo Mbeki, who negotiated this deal. Mr. Mbeki deserves credit for bringing the two sides together, but one wonders what might have emerged had he handled Zimbabwe's dictator with anything rougher than kid gloves.
Yet Tsvangirai and the MDC are not without leverage. Their real participation in the new government is the key to the end of Western sanctions and the start of massive economic and humanitarian aid vital to Zimbabwe's rebirth.
Zimbabwe brings to mind the children's hand game, rock-paper-scissors. Much smashing and cutting have preceded this week's deal. One hopes that the open hands of democracy will wrap around the fist of authoritarianism, so that its brutal force is felt no more.