An emergency weekend summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) failed to break the deadlock in talks on cabinet posts which threatens a Sept. 15 power-sharing deal seen as the best chance to rescue Zimbabwe from economic collapse.
SADC was more assertive than usual, saying Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai should share control of the powerful Home Affairs ministry and quickly form a unity government.
But Tsvangirai rejected the idea and Mugabe quickly capitalised on that, apparently seeking to portray the opposition leader as a spoiler and vowing to form a unity government "as soon as possible."
Aware that SADC is divided and lacks the will to force the sides into a deal, Mugabe knows he has time to wait.
"They (SADC) would love to have this go away and have it swept under the carpet. It’s difficult for them to come out and impose anything on Mugabe’s regime," said Mark Schroeder, director of risk analysis for sub-Saharan Africa at Stratfor.
Mugabe has held power since 1980 with what critics say is patience, cunning and ruthlessness. He has already survived international isolation and sanctions imposed by Western foes.
Although neighbouring countries are struggling with millions of refugees fleeing Zimbabwe and fear a total meltdown there, they have few practical steps to take even if they could agree on the need to take stronger action.
While Botswana and Zambia have taken a tough line on Mugabe, others still respect him as a former African liberation hero.
"You have this mythological figure. Robert Mugabe is like George Washington, he can’t be touched," said one Western diplomat.
Influential regional politicians who have made the strongest calls for an agreement in Zimbabwe also have more pressing issues to worry about.
Jacob Zuma, leader of the ruling African National Congress in regional powerhouse South Africa, has said Zimbabwe’s parties must be forced into a deal.
But he is distracted on the home front after senior ANC members defected to form a breakaway group in the biggest political upheaval since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Analysts believe South Africa’s caretaker president, Kgalema Motlanthe, cannot make a difference before South Africa’s election next year, which is expected to put Zuma in power.
Zambian President Rupiah Banda is fighting opposition accusations he rigged in last month’s presidential election — which might make it harder for him to champion Tsvangirai’s assertion that Mugabe cheated him of election victory.
Zimbabwe’s economic decline, once seen by the opposition as the only factor that could weaken Mugabe, has been worsening while he digs in for a prolonged power struggle which now centres on the Home Affairs ministry — seen as crucial to the veteran leader’s survival because it controls the police.
But Mugabe knows the economy cannot get much worse.
Inflation is officially 231 million percent. Even under government price controls, the cost of bread is doubling every week and all food is in short supply. Zimbabwe is dependent on handouts and malnutrition is on the rise.
With Mugabe keeping a strong hold, the chances of badly needed aid and investment from Western countries are nil.
"Mugabe will not listen to anybody at this stage because he is resigned to fate. He knows nothing will change about the economy even if he continues to hang onto power because it has already gone down," said prominent Lusaka economist and political analyst Chibamba Kanyama.
"There was so much hope that there would be change in Zimbabwe and donors had begun to reposition themselves to bail-out the country, but now Mugabe realises that the bail-out will not come quickly because of the global financial crisis and as such he will hang onto power."
Zimbabweans can expect more of the same — talk of a unity government, new accusations and counter-accusations, calls for SADC intervention — while Mugabe keeps the upper hand.
Western countries, pre-occupied by their own worries, are unlikely to do much more and had in any case always emphasised that it was the region that needed to play the main role.
An exasperated Tsvangirai complained at the weekend summit that SADC leaders told opposition parties to leave their meeting while they formulated a resolution but allowed Mugabe to stay on as what he called a judge of his own case.
"SADC is made up of a group of leaders that are friends of President Mugabe. Many of them have been in power for a long time and do not respect democratic decisions," said Fernando Macedo, political analyst and professor at Luanda’s Lusiada University. (Additional reporting by Shapi Shacinda in Lusaka, Henrique Almeida in Luanda and Rebecca Harrison in Johannesburg; Editing by Matthew Tostevin) – Reuters