Robert Mugabe’s efforts to cling to power appear close to collapse as tens of thousands march through Zimbabwe’s cities calling for his resignation, while the ruling party prepare to dismiss its veteran leader.
Leaders of the Zanu-PF will meet on Sunday morning to endorse a motion stripping the 93-year-old of his post of first secretary, with parliament expected to start impeachment proceedings next week.
The presidential motorcade left Mugabe’s sprawling residence in Harare early on Saturday night, booed and jeered by marchers who had gathered outside.
Sources close to the military said the president had asked a Catholic priest and lifelong friend to act as an intermediary in ongoing talks with generals. Mugabe had previously rejected similar offers of mediation, suggesting that he was close to making a significant concession.
Few options are now open to the autocrat, who has ruled Zimbabwe through a mixture of coercion, bribery and revolutionary rhetoric for nearly four decades. Support in some branches of the security establishment, such as the police, has evaporated, and high-profile political supporters have been detained.
On Saturday, the streets of Harare were filled with joyous residents who chanted, sang and waved placards. Many embraced or posed for selfies with soldiers. The march had the approval of military authorities, and will boost the international image of the generals who seized power last week.
However, analysts said the celebrations were also evidence of a huge desire for democracy in Zimbabwe – not just the departure of the world’s oldest leader.
Piers Pigou, an expert with the International Crisis Group, said the march was both an opportunity and a major challenge for the military and the still-dominant Zanu-PF, which was Mugabe’s political vehicle.
“The language being used [by marchers] shows that people were out not just to support Zanu-PF and the army … What we have seen on the streets suggest that the ordinary Zimbabweans want an alternative to the centralising, controlling narrative,” said Pigou.
The military has said it has no intention of staying in power in and claimed that last week’s takeover was necessary to remove “criminals” close to the president, a reference to Grace Mugabe, the first lady, and her “G40” faction.
Most observers believe the former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa is likely to take charge when Mugabe finally relinquishes power.
Mnangagwa, 75, is a former intelligence chief and veteran Zanu-PF official who was responsible for the repression of opposition parties in successive elections between 2000 and 2008. He was fired by Mugabe 10 days ago.
Opposition leaders in Zimbabwe have called for the formation of an inclusive transitional government but risk being sidelined by the powerful army and Zanu-PF.
There are also concerns that the military will maintain significant influence in the future. “The ruling party have allowed the military to taste political power [and] … we have to expect some role of the armed forces to continue for some time,” said Martin Rupiya, a former Zimbabwean army general.
One senior Zanu-PF official said fears of “praetorian politics” in coming years were justified.
Since taking power, the military has arrested about a dozen senior officials and ministers loyal to the first lady.
Mrs Mugabe, 52, has not been seen since the takeover. Sources told the Guardian she was in her husband’s Harare residence when he was detained on Tuesday and has not moved since.
Zanu-PF branches in all 10 provinces passed motions on Friday afternoon calling for Mugabe to be “recalled” as first secretary of the party. These will now be debated by the central committee of top leaders, which is due to meet at 10.30am local time on Sunday in Harare.
The motions also called for Mrs Mugabe to be stripped of her post as chair of the Zanu-PF women’s league. The first lady was a divisive figure who outraged many in Zimbabwe with her extravagance, violent outbursts and political ambitions.
Mugabe could theoretically continue as president even if he was no longer leader of Zanu-PF but this would be difficult in practice, party insiders said.
Relatives said the couple were “ready to die for what is correct” and had no intention of stepping down to legitimise this week’s military coup.
Speaking to Reuters from a secret location in South Africa, Patrick Zhuwao, Mugabe’s nephew, said on Saturday that his uncle had hardly slept since the military seized power, but his health was otherwise good.
The military takeover is thought to have been prompted in part by fears among the military and its allies within the ruling party of an imminent purge of rivals of Mrs Mugabe, which would allow her to exercise greater power.
Zimbabweans abroad also demonstrated against their president on Saturday. Hundreds living in Britain gathered outside the country’s embassy in central London calling on Mugabe to step aside. Similar rallies were held in South Africa and Namibia.
Mugabe’s downfall is likely to send shockwaves across Africa, where a number of entrenched autocratic leaders, from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila, are facing mounting pressure to step aside.
The failure of regional powers, especially South Africa, to explicitly support the military intervention has angered many in Zimbabwe.
Jacob Zuma, the South African president, said on Saturday the African region was committed to supporting “the people of Zimbabwe” after a military takeover and that he was cautiously optimistic that the situation there could be resolved amicably.
For some in Africa, Mugabe remains a nationalist hero, the continent’s last independence leader and a symbol of its struggle to throw off the legacy of decades of colonial subjugation. But to many more, he is reviled as a dictator who betrayed the values of the liberation struggle.