After nearly three decades in power, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe officially has a partner. The question now: Will Mr. Mugabe actually share power with Morgan Tsvangirai, a rival who has been jailed, beaten, and tortured by the nation's security forces?
After six months of stalemate and state violence, Zimbabwe's two major political parties signed a power-sharing deal Monday in Harare. The pact finally offers a path out of a crisis that's decimated this Southern African nation and left it shunned by many Western countries.
While the agreement clearly gives the greater share of power to Mugabe – leaving him as head of state and in direct control of the military and the intelligence services – it also diminishes, for the first time, the total control enjoyed by the ruling ZANU-PF party, and could pave the way for Mugabe to step down.
"The best path is cautious skepticism," says Roy Bennett, the treasurer general of Mr. Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), living in exile in Johannesburg. "The devil is in the details. The key is implementation, and we don't know how this deal is going to work in practice."
Among Zimbabweans both inside the country and in exile, reaction to the deal has been one of exhausted relief rather than jubilation. Some of the estimated 3 million Zimbabwean refugees living in South Africa may begin to return to their country, now that the political crisis has ended, but others will remember the campaign of terror used by Mugabe and his supporters against the very opposition figures that they will now have to work with, side by side.
Zimbabwe's economy – with an inflation rate of 11 million percent – is in tatters. It may take years before Zimbabweans want to return to their country.
But the fact that a deal has been struck could give space for longer-term solutions to be found and for aid organizations to begin the process of reconstructing a country that went from breadbasket to basket case in the last decade.
Under the deal, Mugabe would remain president of the country, chairman of the cabinet of ministers, and commander in chief of the armed forces and the intelligence services. Tsvangirai would become executive prime minister and chair of a supervisory council that watches over the cabinet.
Mugabe's ZANU-PF party would have 15 cabinet seats, Tsvangirai's MDC would have 13, and a split-away MDC faction would have three seats.
Under the deal Mugabe will still have the authority to "grant pardons, respites, substitute less-severe punishment, and suspend or remit sentences, on the advice of Cabinet."
He also can, subject to the Constitution, "declare war and make peace."
The deal comes after a tumultuous two-part election in March, where Tsvangirai's party won the largest number of seats in parliament, but where Tsvangirai himself fell short of the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff election against Mugabe for the presidency.
Mugabe won a second round of the election, after Tsvangirai pulled out of the race, pointing to the use of violence by police and militias against his supporters.
That context raises concerns, for some observers, about the durability of this agreement.
"If you have a deal of whatever form where these two sides are willing to share power, it is implausible that it will work when one of those two sides, the government, used violence against the other side that it now has to work with," says Steven Friedman, a senior analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa in Johannesburg.
The MDC claims that 130 of its members were killed by security forces or pro-Mugabe militias in the past six months.
Any real power-sharing deal would have taken on the military, Mr. Friedman adds, and its financial dealings and its control of resources in Zimbabwe. "My sense is that the generals are confident that Tsvangirai cannot exercise power in a way that impinges on their well-being. They are not going to let him strain into what they regard as no-go areas."
"The world has too many examples of what happens when people are driven by past wrongs rather than the hope of future glories," said Tsvangirai, in a speech Monday after the signing. "I have chosen to be guided by hope and if you join me in this, we will not fail to witness the rebirth of our nation."
That said, a power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe could pave the way for an influx of Western financial aid and business investment that has been held back by years of sanctions against the Mugabe regime.
The European Union – a key donor to African countries – has postponed a decision on whether to extend sanctions against Zimbabwe until it can study how the Mugabe-Tsvangirai power-sharing deal is working. The EU's foreign-policy group will hold its next meeting in October.
The deal also relieves political and economic pressure on Zimbabwe's neighbors, all of which have taken in a flood of Zimbabwean refugees in the past decade of Zimbabwe's economic collapse. The Zimbabwe political crisis had split members of the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which had appointed South African President Thabo Mbeki as a mediator.
The agreement calls for the lifting of "smart sanctions" imposed on Mugabe and his cronies by Western countries based on allegations of gross human rights abuses. The agreement also calls for the writing of a new Constitution. A select committee to work on a new Constitution will be set up within two months of inception of a new government.
University of Zimbabwe political commentator Simon Badza says the signing of the deal was a necessary and important step in the right direction. "However, we will see the substance and the workability of the deal on the implementation," he cautions.
John Makumbe, another University of Zimbabwe political scientist and a fierce critic of Mugabe, says the deal will only work if the political protagonists agree on the allocation of ministries. "If they agree on the allocation of ministries and the other finer details, it will work out," says Mr. Makumbe. "They have already demonstrated the spirit that they can work together."
Tendai Kurebwa, a ZANU-PF supporter from Harare's suburbs, is hopeful that the signing of the agreement will end the current economic problems affecting the country. "I am a true ZANU-PF supporter but this crisis had condemned me to being a beggar. I cannot afford food or school fees for my three children. It opens a new chapter in the history of the country, and I hope it will end my woes."
• A reporter in Harare contributed to this report. The name is being withheld for security reasons.