Rule by Iron Bar

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

IN RECENT years it seemed no outrage by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was enough to inspire a rebellion by his political cronies or effective intervention by outsiders. The 83-year-old president destroyed the country's once relatively prosperous economy, stole multiple elections and cruelly drove hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers from their homes. Still his once proud ZANU-PF party, which led Zimbabwe to independence, stayed with him, while fellow African leaders shrank from confronting him.

Now Mr. Mugabe is once again testing -- or shaming -- those who have chosen to endure him for so long, at such cost to Zimbabwe. Last week, newspapers published an interview in which the president suggested that next year he would seek another six-year extension of his term. Then his police brutally attacked an opposition prayer meeting, beating and arresting 50 leaders.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of the Movement for Democratic Change, was hospitalized with a suspected skull fracture. Released last Friday, he said he had suffered "an orgy of heavy beatings" while in custody. Other activists had their arms broken; one was carried out of jail on a stretcher. Over the weekend the violence continued, as the regime forcibly prevented opposition leaders from leaving the country. One, Nelson Chamisa, was stopped on his way to the airport and beaten with iron bars.

The crackdown has drawn condemnations from the United States and the European Union, which long ago sanctioned Zimbabwe. More important, it prompted at least a modest reaction from the African leaders who until now have given Mr. Mugabe a pass. African Union Chairman John Kufuor of Ghana said that A.U. governments found the situation "very uncomfortable" and "embarrassing." South Africa, which has stubbornly stuck to a failed policy of "quiet diplomacy," yesterday warned Mr. Mugabe against declaring a state of emergency and said its "primary worry" was "abuse of human rights."

Mr. Mugabe has responded by threatening more violence. "They will get arrested and get bashed by the police," he said of the opposition. The West, he said, could "get hanged"; its ambassadors have been threatened with expulsion. Such words ought to force both his countrymen and his neighbors to realize they can no longer afford to allow Mr. Mugabe to go on destroying his own country. As Mr. Tsvangirai put it in an interview with The Post's Craig Timberg, "Unless they are prepared to stand up to Mugabe, this man is prepared to burn down the building."

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