— The Zimbabwean police on Friday violently extinguished a protest against President Robert Mugabe in the capital, Harare, cracking down on a united show of force by Zimbabwe
’s political opposition.
Despite a last-minute court order allowing the demonstration to proceed, the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a crowd of hundreds from a square in Harare, beating protesters with batons.
Mr. Mugabe’s government has been challenged by a series of public protests in the past two months, fueled by widespread anger over the deteriorating economy. But the broad array of opposition figures and the swiftness of the police reaction, despite the court order, signaled a new level of tension.
Leaders of an emerging coalition against Mr. Mugabe — including Morgan Tsvangirai, the nation’s longtime opposition figure, and Joice Mujuru, a former vice president who broke with Mr. Mugabe — were chased away from the square by the police and fled in their cars.
Protesters left the square and ran into the central business district, some of them throwing stones at the police. Though the demonstration was organized by about 20 opposition parties and led by supporters, many ordinary Zimbabweans also joined the protest.
“I was beaten by the police here exercising my constitutional right, beaten with baton sticks by a horde of around 10 police officers,” said Jonathan Malindati, 39, a jobless man who stood near the square, bleeding from his head and displaying baton marks on his back.
“Police must safeguard the Constitution, which permits us to demonstrate,” he added. “They must not be sent to fight us by Mugabe.”
The demonstration on Friday, organized by the political opposition against what it calls Zimbabwe’s corrupt electoral commission, occurred amid a deepening economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe. A fight to succeed Mr. Mugabe, who is increasingly frail at age 92, has split the governing ZANU-PF party and emboldened his opponents.
As the government has run short of cash, it has delayed paychecks to the military and the police for two consecutive months, and has struggled to pay other civil servants.
Tambudzai Jabangwe, a 68-year-old widow, shouted at anti-riot police officers for protecting a government that was destroying jobs for the country’s children. “You are cruel, you have no heart,” she yelled before being chased away from the square.
Later, Ms. Jabangwe said she had taken a bus from her home into the city to participate in the protest.
“I am fighting for my grandchildren, who are educated but unemployed because of Mugabe who has shut down everything, every industry,” she said.
Amid the turmoil of the protest, rumors spread on social media that Mr. Mugabe had fled the country. But the state media reported that he had left to attend a previously scheduled summit meeting in Kenya
between African nations
About 20 opposition parties participated in Friday’s demonstration, led by Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change and Ms. Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First. The united front came after months of negotiations between Mr. Tsvangirai, who once served as prime minister in a tense unity government with Mr. Mugabe after disputed elections, and Ms. Mujuru, who served for a decade as Mr. Mugabe’s vice president until she and many of her allies were expelled in 2014 from ZANU-PF.
In a bid to unseat Mr. Mugabe in the 2018 elections, Ms. Mujuru formed her own party early this year, surrounding herself with former ZANU-PF members. Though Ms. Mujuru was in Mr. Mugabe’s inner circle for decades, she was not considered a party hard-liner and was known for being comparatively open to the opposition, including Mr. Tsvangirai.
Ms. Mujuru’s pledge to challenge Mr. Mugabe in the next election unsettled governing party officials, who have been fiercely attacking her character and credentials in recent months. Though her party lacks the resources of her established rivals, she has been a well-known figure for decades in Zimbabwe, a famous freedom fighter known by her nom de guerre, Spill Blood.
Pedzisai Ruhanya, a political analyst and director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a research group based in Harare, said that Ms. Mujuru would come in third behind Mr. Tsvangirai and Mr. Mugabe in a presidential election. But a partnership between Mr. Tsvangirai and Ms. Mujuru would magnify the threat to Mr. Mugabe.
“It is important for Tsvangirai and Mujuru to unite,” Mr. Ruhanya said. “Mujuru will eat massively in Mugabe’s electoral base at any given election.”
Ms. Mujuru and her allies enjoy wide networks of supporters in rural Zimbabwe, Mr. Mugabe’s traditional stronghold. By contrast, Mr. Tsvangirai has always been strongest in Harare and in other cities.
In recent months, Ms. Mujuru and Mr. Tsvangirai have held several private meetings and then made their first joint appearance at a rally two weeks ago in Gweru, a city in central Zimbabwe. The nation’s opposition parties have a long fractured history — one that Mr. Mugabe has skillfully exploited — but opposition officials say that the two leaders’ rapprochement could be a step toward a more formal union ahead of the 2018 elections.
“Our people have demonstrated and demonstrated in a very big way when we held a joint rally in Gweru that they want us to work together,” said Jealousy Mawarire, a spokesman for Ms. Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First party, adding, “If we don’t work together as leaders, we run the risk of being left behind by the people.”
Lovemore Chinoputsa, the secretary general of the youth wing of Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, said that “a coalition is a good initiative considering that we have been fighting an entrenched dictatorship that requires uniting forces to fight together.”
But Douglas Mwonzora, the Movement for Democratic Change’s secretary general, said that the two opposition parties were focused now on changing the electoral process to ensure fair elections.
“Regarding the modalities of how we are going to work together when it comes to the election, it is too early to tell,” Mr. Mwonzora said. “But we are serious about working together.”