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Zimbabwean Pastor Evan Mawarire addresses students during a lecture at Wits University in Johannesburg, on July 28, 2016. Mawarire, who said he has no political ambitions, became the public face of a wave of protests in Zimbabwe as founder of the popular "This Flag" internet campaign and an organiser of a national strike. The country's long-standing economic troubles have deepened in recent months, with Mugabe -- aged 92 and increasingly frail -- now struggling to pay soldiers and civil servants.

MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

As he strolls out of a suburban shopping mall into the Johannesburg dusk, the Zimbabwean pastor is mobbed by his fans. "The only man who can fight with Mugabe is this one," a supporter shouts exultantly, posing for a photo with his hero.

Evan Mawarire is a Zimbabwean phenomenon: the ordinary clergyman who rattled the regime of President Robert Mugabe, sparking a reform movement that finally threatens the grip of the 92-year-old autocrat, who has ruled the country for the past 36 years.

With his fiery speeches and video messages and his mastery of social media – and with a Zimbabwean flag always draped patriotically around his neck – Mr. Mawarire has ignited Zimbabwe's biggest unrest in years.

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The young pastor has inspired anti-government protests across his country and among Zimbabweans around the world, from Edmonton to Australia. But after treason charges and a brief imprisonment last month, he must now struggle to keep the movement alive from temporary exile in South Africa and the United States.

Mr. Mawarire was a little-known man without any political involvement until April, when he spontaneously posted a videotaped lament for the Zimbabwean flag, creating the movement that became known as #ThisFlag.

He made the video at a moment of anger at Zimbabwe's decline, spurred by his inability to pay his children's school fees because of the impoverished economy. The 39-year-old pastor spoke eloquently into the camera as he touched the Zimbabwean flag that he wore around his neck. "This is the time when a change must happen," he said in the video. "This flag, every day that it flies, is begging for you to get involved, to say something, to cry out and say, 'Why must we be in this situation?'"

The video went viral, captivating 120,000 viewers on its first day. Many Zimbabweans responded with their own flag-themed digital activism. Thousands more have taken to the streets, protesting the economic collapse and corruption that have devastated their country in the past decade of Mr. Mugabe's rule.

Last month, the movement put further pressure on the government by organizing a stay-at-home demonstration, producing the biggest shutdown of shops and businesses in almost a decade. When the police took Mr. Mawarire to jail, an estimated 5,000 supporters rallied to the court building to defend him, singing patriotic songs.

Zimbabwe could be on the verge of political change at last, analysts say. "The long-simmering Zimbabwean crisis may have reached the boiling point," said David Moore, a Canadian scholar at the University of Johannesburg who studies Zimbabwe.

The protesters have found a different explanation for their success. "You cannot shoot a hashtag," a member of #ThisFlag taunted the government in an online video.

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Mr. Mawarire himself is convinced Zimbabwe has reached a turning point. "The regime is quaking and shaking because citizens are standing up to them for the first time," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

"They know their time is up. The tick-tick of the clock has never been louder. It's the end of an era."

But the Mugabe regime won't go down without a fight. The stark reality is that Mr. Mawarire is giving his interviews these days in exile in South Africa – a country where a million of his compatriots have sought jobs and shelter, but still on the margins of the Zimbabwean political struggle. He has also travelled to the U.S. to rally support from the Zimbabwean diaspora there.

When groups of menacing men began to visit his Harare home and office, shortly after the court ordered his release from prison, Mr. Mawarire knew he needed to flee. He slipped across the South African border at night to safety. But even here, he still has to dodge Mr. Mugabe's secret police and he admits he has little hope of returning home in the near future.

In the interview, he became tearful as he recalled the emotional messages from his supporters after they realized he had gone into exile. "You can't leave us now," they told him. "You drew us out to the battlefront. You can't disappear, because we're still here."

But his movement has survived his absence, even winning an unexpected ally in Zimbabwe's war veterans – the long-time Mugabe loyalists who had fought for liberation from white minority rule in the 1970s. The veterans last month unveiled a shocking attack on Mr. Mugabe, denouncing him as dictatorial and corrupt. In retaliation, Mr. Mugabe threatened them with "severe" punishment and police arrested several of their leaders.

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The protests have come at a crucial time in Zimbabwe. The ruling party is consumed by factional feuding in the unofficial race to succeed the President, even as Mr. Mugabe insists he will run again in the 2018 election, allowing him to keep power until the age of 99. The economy continues to deteriorate. Inflation and unemployment are soaring, banks are running out of cash and the health-care system is near collapse. The government has banned the import of many basic goods and delayed wage payments to soldiers and civil servants, while begging for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The protest movement has left the regime floundering in disarray, scrambling for tactics to respond. It has violently broken up the street protests. It has bussed loyalists into Harare for pro-Mugabe rallies. It has threatened to restrict the use of social media and the carrying of Zimbabwean flags. It ejected lawmakers who wore the flag in Parliament and it arrested human-rights activists who wore the flag at a cricket match. It has used state media to fabricate stories about Mr. Mawarire, calling him a "fraudster" whose political movement is "a money-spinning venture."

And now, the Zimbabwean army has stepped into the fray for the first time, vowing to "deal with" anyone who uses social media for "wrong ideas." It's an implicit admission that the government is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Facebook and Twitter generation.

For months, Mr. Mugabe tried to pretend that the protests weren't happening. But finally last month, he spoke Mr. Mawarire's name, accusing him of being a false preacher and a tool of Western governments.

"The Mawarires, if they don't want to live with us, they should go to those countries that are sponsoring them," Mr. Mugabe said. "Beware these men of God. Not all of them are true preachers. I don't know whether they are serving God or they spell God in reverse."

Mr. Mawarire says he knew he was winning the battle when he heard the President attacking him by name. "He's scared, scared, scared," the pastor said.

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"He expelled me from the country for democratically raising my voice. But this is the beauty of what's happening in Zimbabwe: The intimidation tactics are no longer working. If the government wanted to crush us, they would literally have to arrest everybody and ban the carrying of the national flag."

Strategically, his movement has called for accountability and reform, rather than regime change. It has declined to embrace the opposition political parties, preferring to remain non-partisan, and the pastor has so far declined a formal role in politics.

But his anger is clearly focused on the Mugabe government. He tells stories of a cabinet minister spending $95,000 (U.S.) on a new luxury car and regime leaders jetting to elite hospitals in Singapore and Dubai for medical care, while Zimbabwe's health system has become so decrepit that pregnant women must bring their own water supply when they enter local hospitals to give birth.

Mr. Mawarire, the son of civil servants who had supported Mr. Mugabe's battle against white minority rule in the 1970s, was educated at a private school in Harare and then in a rural school, where at the age of 16 he briefly served as president of a government-sponsored "child parliament" – his only brief foray into politics. It led to a meeting with Mr. Mugabe himself.

"Like many young people, I revered Robert Mugabe as the hero of our nation," he recalls. "He was the only president we'd ever known – this towering icon of the liberation struggle. Then I grew up and discovered the truth."

At a meeting with hundreds of Zimbabweans at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the pastor was greeted with noisy cheers, ululations, standing ovations and rapturous applause. He waved the Zimbabwean flag as he joined the crowd in loudly singing the national anthem and then he gave a blazing speech.

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Zimbabwe, he said, had been reduced to "a tale of horror and unimaginable disappointment." He spoke of pensioners who had to take jobs of backbreaking labour and impoverished vegetable sellers who sleep in the streets because they can't afford to go home.

Then he switched to optimism. "What a time to be a Zimbabwean," he told the crowd. "There is a sense of something truly powerful moving in the hearts of Zimbabweans."

He ended with a message for the Mugabe government. "You cannot stop your sun from setting and ours from rising."

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