HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe has faced down opposition before, but with the Zimbabwean economy tanking, his party divided and security forces unpaid, a new cadre of protesters is daring to hope for change after 36 years of rule by the aging strongman.
“The man is now very old and tired,” Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said of the 92-year-old Mr. Mugabe, the world’s longest-serving chief executive. “What we are seeing today is a frail Mugabe whose party has no future after him. The people are saying ‘no.’”
A wave of social unrest has erupted in recent weeks, including the biggest demonstrations in years, a nationwide strike that shut down much of the country and opposition galvanized by social network campaigns.
Discontent has been triggered by high-level corruption — including the disappearance of $15 billion in diamond revenue — compounding an economic crisis that has left banks starved of cash, hospitals lacking medicine and government workers missing pay.
The economic meltdown is reviving fears of a repeat of Zimbabwe’s financial collapse in the 2000s, when mismanagement by the ruling Zimbabwe African National UnionPatriotic Front (ZANUPF) party caused inflation briefly to top 500 billion percent.
“There is no one in government who is thinking about the economy,” said Mr. Ruhanya. “Almost everyone in ZANU-PF is entangled in succession politics, and this has riled Zimbabweans who can hardly feed their families.”
One worrying sign for the president has been an open revolt among some military veterans of the country’s independence wars — previously a bedrock of the regime. Zimbabwean police on Monday arrested two more officials of the veterans association that turned on Mr. Mugabe last month. One of them was detained as he left a courthouse where a colleague was answering charges of insulting the president.
Victor Matemadanda, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, was the second official detained in a crackdown on the association’s leaders. Francis Nhando, the association’s political commissar, was also arrested, lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa told reporters in Harare.
A Baptist pastor, Evan Mawarire, has emerged as a rallying figure for the protesters since launching a movement on social networks, including Twitter under the hashtag #ThisFlag.
Mr. Mawarire was arrested and accused of attempting to overthrow the government after helping organize the strike, but he was released last month.
The magistrates’ surprise decision to throw out charges against the 39-year-old cleric was widely interpreted as a sign that defiance also is growing among the judiciary.
“Our future is in our hands. Those protesting are fighting for the rights of those police officers who are oppressing their voices, but as #ThisFlag, we want people to demonstrate peacefully,” Mr. Mawarire said in an appeal to supporters not to respond with violence.
As in the past, the security forces have been cracking down hard on dissenters. Hundreds have been arrested and beaten by police.
“The deplorable use of force by the police against protesters amounts to human rights violations,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Southern Africa. “Police must comply with international standards.”
Mr. Mugabe’s supporters, however, remain defiant.
“We are going to ensure that the instigators of these protests will face the full wrath of the law,” said Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo.
As with previous outbreaks of public anger, Mr. Chombo blames foreign powers for fomenting discontent.
“We know that these protests are being financed by some foreign embassies as a way of advancing their regime change agenda,” he said. “President Mugabe is not resigning because he has an electoral mandate to lead this country.”
Blaming the West
The government also blames international sanctions for Zimbabwe’s financial woes. Despite the accusations against Western powers, Mr. Mugabe’s government is lobbying them for loans to pay off $1.8 billion in arrears to international financial institutions.
Threats of more repression may have diminished the impact of planned follow-up strikes, but many believe momentum behind the protests is growing.
Vimbai Kamhunga told The Washington Times that police brutality he suffered after joining the protests has increased his determination to fight for change in the southern African nation.
“I am ready to die for the future of my kids,” said the 28-year-old activist. “I want Mugabe to fix the country’s comatose economy; otherwise, we will continue to meet with the police in the streets.”
Some campaigners are hopeful that government’s inability to pay police and army wages on time is weakening Mr. Mugabe’s grip on the security forces.
“The youths no longer have the fear of the military and the police: The army and the police are also being affected by the economic meltdown,” said Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform for Youth Development. “Those with divergent views are now taking advantage of the situation to advance their interests.”
Divisions within ZANU-PF also are weakening the regime. Factions linked to Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and first lady Grace Mugabe are jockeying for positions ahead of a succession battle.
Another longtime contender, former Vice President Joice Mujuru, was expelled from ZANU-PF last year after accusations that she was plotting to unseat Mr. Mugabe.
Ms. Mujuru has formed an opposition party called Zimbabwe People First and has denounced the suppression of dissent.
“The constitution allows Zimbabweans to demonstrate against the government, and authorities must protect the demonstrators but not to assault them,” said Ms. Mujuru. “The government is elected by the same people whom it assaulting, and that cannot be tolerated.”
Last week, Zimbabwean police detained the spokesman of the veterans association that turned against Mr. Mugabe last week, raising concerns of a crackdown on what had been the president’s most loyal supporters, The Associated Press reported.
Douglas Mahiya was detained shortly after Mr. Mugabe vowed severe punishment for the authors of the harshly worded statement by the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association.
Mr. Mahiya faces a year in jail if convicted on charges of insulting or undermining the authority of the president, said his attorney, Andrew Makoni.
“They specifically mentioned the statement but also said he has been insulting the president from 6 April to 21 July with some of his unnamed colleagues,” Mr. Makoni told the AP.