His election plans have angered impoverished Zimbabweans and led to clashes between supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party and those of the MDC, formerly the main opposition, now his uneasy coalition partner.
The protests which toppled Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Egypt and Tunisia have not gone unnoticed in Zimbabwe but Mugabe’s supporters have vowed to keep their elderly leader in power.
Political analysts say that while conditions are ripe for mass anti-government protests, and Zimbabweans follow events in the Arab world on satellite television, the ruling party’s tight control of the security forces and state institutions mean protests are unlikely to succeed.
Also, the Internet and mobile phones were used extensively in Egypt and Tunisia to coordinate protests, but this would be difficult in Zimbabwe where just over half the population have mobile phones and only 12 percent have access to the Internet.
"There is so much less power and capacity to organise using technology that we have seen in North Africa. This puts people at a real disadvantage," said Sisonke Msimang, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
The army and police have a long history of cracking down on opposition protests, and in the 1980s North Korean-trained Zimbabwean troops killed thousands when they crushed a five-year insurgency in Matabeleland province.
Elections since 2002 have also been marked by violent state crackdowns on the opposition. A disputed 2008 election was marred by violence which the MDC says was orchestrated by the military and left more than 200 of its supporters dead.
Security chiefs, many of whom have been given farms seized from white farmers, say they would not accept a president who did not fight in the 1970s independence war, a reference to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s long-time rival.
"It is not easy to get crowds onto streets in Zimbabwe, as the security apparatus is thoroughly controlled by ZANU-PF and they have not hesitated to intimidate and inflict pain on dissenters or opposition members willing to protest," said Mark Schroeder, sub-Saharan Africa analyst at Stratfor.
CULTURE OF FEAR
Security forces arrested dozens of activists at the weekend on charges of plotting protests against Mugabe similar to those that toppled the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders.
As in Egypt, Tunisia and several Arab countries, Zimbabweans are battling high levels of poverty and unemployment, decaying infrastructure, diminishing freedoms, police brutality and corrupt elites who continue to amass wealth.
But there the similarities end.
"It is hard to imagine Zimbabweans can rise against the government. I think it is possible but then the culture of fear is just too much and not without reason," said Martin Chimeda, who says he was brutalised by ZANU-PF members in 2008 for organising for the MDC.
Analysts say ZANU-PF’s control of key state institutions and use of state violence against defenceless citizens have crushed people’s willingness to rise against the ruling party.
Mugabe, whom critics accuse of wrecking the economy with policies such as the seizure of white-owned commercial farms, has led the country since independence from Britain in 1980.
After a decade of economic collapse and his violent re-election in 2008, Mugabe was forced into a fragile coalition with opposition leader Tsvangirai which has managed to stabilise the economy and ease political tension.
The economy last year grew for the second consecutive year, ending shortages of basic goods, fuel and foreign currency, though poverty and unemployment levels remain high.
Now hope has turned to anger as billions in foreign aid, expected after the unity government was formed in 2009, failed to arrive because Western donors and investors were still waiting for real political and economic reforms.
Mugabe has rattled foreign investors with plans to force foreign-owned firms, including banks and mines, to sell majority shares to blacks, which critics say will hurt economic recovery.
Analysts remain unsure what would drive Zimbabweans to a tipping point. Past predictions that Mugabe would fall have failed to materialise.
"There is no knowing what will cause Zimbabweans to jettison their fear and confront their oppressors. All the ingredients for a people-driven revolution are present in Zimbabwe," wrote Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean who publishes South Africa’s influential Mail & Guardian weekly newspaper.
Shunned by the West over charges of election rigging and human rights abuses, Mugabe has increasingly looked to China to prop up the resource-rich economy and says the West has imposed sanctions on him to punish him for his land seizures.
Mugabe marks his 87th birthday with a traditional private family dinner on Monday. A lavish rally will be held on Feb. 26, which he may use to give a timetable for the next elections.
Revered by fanatical supporters who say he is a champion of black empowerment and stands up to the West, Mugabe is equally hated by opponents who label him a ruthless dictator.
"Comrade Mugabe is the only leader who can rule and we are willing to defend the country so that we will not have a repeat of what happened in Egypt," said Job Nhekairo, a father of four who operates a electrical shop in Harare.