Robert Mugabe's decline and fall, when it finally came, was stunning in its swiftness. For 37 years he had been the undisputed ruler of Zimbabwe. And then, on Wednesday, he was abruptly confined to his home, under military guard, his era almost certainly over.
The power of the Zimbabwean President, according to most assumptions, had been total and complete. Yet, in the end, his authority crumbled like a house of cards. His supporters abandoned him. He remained the President, but in name only.
There were still questions in Zimbabwe on Wednesday, but they were mere details. It was unclear whether Mr. Mugabe would remain as a figurehead in Zimbabwe, or whether he and his family would seek refuge in a foreign country, perhaps Singapore or Malaysia where he has spent many months for medical treatment in recent years.
The military takeover was astonishingly smooth and almost entirely bloodless. A few gunshots, a couple of explosions, a few arrests, and the Mugabe faction within the ruling party was essentially finished. It didn't mean a victory by the opposition parties – since power is still controlled by authoritarian military officers – but there was at least a possibility that Zimbabwe's government could move into the modern age.
South African President Jacob Zuma, who spoke to Mr. Mugabe on Wednesday, confirmed that the Zimbabwean President was "confined to his home." Mr. Zuma said he would be sending two senior envoys to meet Mr. Mugabe and the military, but his statement made no attempt to criticize the military takeover – an early indication that Zimbabwe's neighbours are likely to accept Mr. Mugabe's forced demise, as long as the military promises that it will eventually restore civilian rule.
The Zimbabwean military needed only a few armoured vehicles to secure the streets of the capital, Harare, because there were no crowds of Mugabe loyalists to suppress. Instead, there was a mood of guarded optimism on Wednesday, a rare sense of hope among most Zimbabweans. After years of economic disaster and impoverishment, even a military takeover was seen as a potential boon.
"What the soldiers did was very good – they are averting a disaster," said Dougmore Matema, a taxi driver who was sitting idle on the streets on Wednesday. "There was going to be civil unrest. The situation was ripe for unrest."
Another motorist honked his horn and applauded loudly when he saw two soldiers passing by him on the street. "You're our heroes," he shouted. "You're the best. You brought us freedom. You deserve our applause."
By Wednesday night, the military presence in Harare was remarkably light. A drive through the centre of the city found only a few armoured vehicles and a handful of idle soldiers, barely visible in the darkness. Only half a dozen soldiers were casually checking the vehicles that entered Harare's international airport, while ignoring those that drove out of the airport.
But crucially, the police were gone. The normal police checkpoints in Harare had vanished. Motorists could cruise through the streets unmolested by demands for bribes. Even the ubiquitous Central Intelligence Organisation, the secret police, had retreated. One witness described how the military had rounded up the police and CIO guards at Zimbabwe's parliament, forcing them into a submissive queue under military guard.
The disappearance of the police and intelligence agents was highly significant, since they were the main weapons of the Mugabe faction – the coterie within the ruling ZANU-PF party that was headed by the Mugabe family, including his wife, Grace, and their loyalists.
Ms. Mugabe has been verbally assailing Zimbabwe's military leaders for months. She also launched a bitter campaign against the politician who was closest to the military: the senior vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
That campaign seemed to be victorious last week when Mr. Mugabe announced the dismissal of Mr. Mnangagwa. But victory may have fumbled through the fingers of the Mugabe faction when it failed to arrest the former vice-president. He slipped out of the country, remained elusive, and apparently succeeded in mobilizing the top military commanders to take action against the Mugabe family. Many Zimbabweans now expect him to return to a senior position in a transitional government.
The army commander, General Constantino Chiwenga, had warned on Monday that the military was prepared to intervene. He vowed to take "corrective measures" against the "treacherous shenanigans" of those who were "purging" the government.
His words seemed to be aimed especially at Grace Mugabe and her ambitious circle of loyalists in the government. The military has been unhappy at the prospect that she could be positioning herself to succeed her 93-year-old husband, who has been visibly weak and ailing over the past year.
Zimbabweans are increasingly resentful of the rising power of Ms. Mugabe, who is 41 years younger than her husband and is widely loathed for her lavish lifestyle, her expensive spending habits (including recently a diamond ring worth $1.35-million U.S.), and her furious volleys of insults against her rivals.
General Chiwenga's ominous statement was a forewarning of a possible coup. An official statement from the ruling party on Tuesday accused the army commander of insurrection and "treasonable conduct." But within hours, there were armoured vehicles in the streets. And by Wednesday at dawn, the military had taken over.
A senior military official, Major-General Sibusiso Moyo, gave a televised address to the country in full camouflage uniform from a studio at the state broadcaster. He said Mr. Mugabe and his family were "safe and sound" and their security was guaranteed.
"We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country, in order to bring them to justice," he said.
"As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy."
He denied it was a military coup. "What the Zimbabwe Defence Forces is actually doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country, which if not addressed may result in a violent conflict."
In reality, there was little doubt that the military action was a coup. But it still brought a spark of hope. "In this country, we are free now," said Pindai Dube, a local journalist. "We have suffered for a long time, but this is the New Zimbabwe."
Most Zimbabweans decided to await a clear outcome to the crisis. The streets were relatively empty on Wednesday. Many companies and embassies had closed their doors for the day because of the uncertainty.
Obert Gutu, a spokesman for the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, said he was impressed by the bloodless nature of the military intervention. People are anxious about the crisis, but they remain committed to non-violence, he said. "There's calm, there's peace, there's no looting," he told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday night.
"In Africa, normally there are dead bodies littering the streets after a coup, but there's nothing like that here in Zimbabwe. It's very unique. Zimbabweans are among the most tolerant people."
Most Zimbabweans have known only one leader – Mr. Mugabe – for their entire lives, Mr. Gutu noted. "If the Mugabe era is over, it's very good news for the people. A post-Mugabe era gives a lot of hope to the people."