"Replace Mubarak with Mugabe and you have Zimbabwe" – Petina Gappah

“I am overwhelmed, I don’t want to say Mr. or PM what happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.”

This was the message that Vikas Mavhudzi of Old Magwegwe township in Bulawayo typed into his phone and posted on the Facebook page of Zimbabwe’s prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Like many Facebook messages written in haste, it is garbled, its syntax and grammar are suspect and it serves only to express the passing emotion of the moment. 

That passing emotion, the euphoria that Mavhudzi felt on the collapse of Mubarak’s regime, now has him facing the criminal charge of "plotting to oust a constitutionally-elected government." The revolution in Egypt has had the direct result of setting a legal precedent in Zimbabwe: Mavhudzi is the first person to be arrested over comments made on a social networking site. 

Zimbabweans have been as fascinated by the events in the Middle East as have people all over the world. The parallels to Mubarak and Ben Ali’s regimes are striking. Zimbabwe, too, has been in the grip of a single party for decades, in fact, for the majority of its independent life. As in Egypt, the ruling party has not hesitated to stifle democratic space, to loot national resources, to enfeeble parliament and to use patronage as a means of securing loyalty. And as in Tunisia, power has been expressed through the police and military.

In the days of uncertainty before Mubarak stepped down, a joke circulating in Egypt had a doctor request that a dying Mubarak make a farewell statement to his people. A puzzled Mubarak, weakened and at death’s door, says: "Farewell to my people? Where are they going?" 

Replace Mubarak with Mugabe and you have Zimbabwe. 

No wonder then that people in Zimbabwe saw Egypt as a possible beacon. Munyaradzi Gwisai, a democracy activist and former MP, organised a seminar on the topic: "Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia. What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe?" He is currently in jail, arrested on the same charges as Mavhudzi.

Individual arrests have not been the regime’s only response to a potential ‘Egypt’. While the world was riveted by citizens demonstrating across the Arab world, Zimbabwe sent out images of a different kind of demonstration.

In the last week in February, just after Mugabe turned 87, thousands of people thronged a Harare field for a rally organised by Mugabe’s party. The ostensible reason was to protest against Western sanctions, but it had another purpose altogether. The message from Zimbabwe was clear: Mubarak, Ben Ali, and even Gaddafi may be on the out, but Mugabe, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, still has a way to go: there is no change here, nothing to see. In Zimbabwe, the revolution has been all but postponed.

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of The Africa Report