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Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for so long that his time in power has to be seen as metaphor. He came to global prominence with the winds of history at his back, but he now looks poised to exit the world stage as a frail and faded anachronism. Few remaining active politicians better capture the arc of 20th-century politics, and no sitting autocrat better illustrates the tragic, brutal path that revolutions can take.

On Wednesday, it grew increasingly clear that Mugabe's 37-year-long reign was nearing its end. Over the course of the day (and the preceding night), military vehicles had fanned across the capital city of Harare. A state broadcaster was seized. In some instances, gunfire was exchanged between soldiers and security forces attached to prominent ministers. The Zimbabwean president was said to be “safe,” though reports suggested he had been placed under a form of house arrest. Military officials insisted that what was taking place was not a coup, but rather an operation aimed at “targeting criminals” around Mugabe.

Many people weren't convinced. "'The President is safe' is a classic coup catch-phrase,” Naunihal Singh, author of a recent book on military coups, wrote on Twitter. “No, I expect a transition in the next few days, whether dejure or defacto.” Alpha Condé, the president of Guinea and current head of the African Union, told reporters on Wednesday evening that the upheaval in Zimbabwe “seems like a coup” and urged “constitutional order to be restored immediately.” At the time of writing, it was not clear whether Mugabe would be forced to formally resign.

In the last decade or so, Mugabe has seen various challenges to his authority, ranging from a mobilized and dogged opposition to spontaneous street protests over the country's disastrous economy. But the challenge that seems to have finally brought him down comes from within the ruling establishment.

As my colleagues report, Zimbabwe’s political crisis reached a boiling point last week with the dismissal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. That cleared the way for Grace Mugabe, Mugabe's wife and also a vice president, to succeed him. Mugabe accused Mnangagwa of “disloyalty, disrespect and deceitfulness.”

Despite years of kleptocratic rule and the brutal repression of dissent, Mugabe still derives legitimacy from his past as an anti-colonial revolutionary and his leadership in the guerrilla war that ended white rule in the country. He was once a lion of the decolonized world, greeted rapturously in 1980 on a visit to the United States. “It's been a long time since any political figure has been able to penetrate the cynicism of Harlem,” reported The Post then as crowds of New Yorkers came out to greet the Zimbabwean leader.

But Mugabe's ruthless consolidation and abuse of power led to new traumas for his country. Various heavy-handed attempts at economic reform, including the expropriation of white-owned land, harmed his people more than they helped. His wife, Grace, became a walking symbol of elite graft, while Mugabe himself kept spouting the bromides of an anti-imperial past even as the world changed rapidly around him.

“It now seems Ms. Mugabe's impatience to sideline Mnangagwa was a calamitous miscalculation. Zimbabwe's security forces, long loyal to Robert Mugabe, have made it clear through their takeover that they find the possibility of a Mugabe dynasty, led by Grace, to be repulsive,” wrote my colleague Max Bearak. “The Mugabes may have also underestimated Mnangagwa's thirst for power, and the depth of his connections with the military. He is known as one of the most cunning politicians in Zimbabwe, and has been designing his ascendance for decades.”

Mnangagwa, a longtime apparatchik in Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, built a network of influence among Harare's political class and top military brass, including senior figures associated with the independence struggles of the 1960s and '70s. Faced with the choice of who should succeed Mugabe, the country's military leadership, including army chief Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, sided against the president's wife.

There's some optimism around Mugabe's potential departure. “Many leaders in the region (and perhaps further afield) will probably acquiesce to a quick and relatively bloodless transfer of power,” noted the Economist. “They see Mr Mnangagwa as a pragmatist and point out that he has spoken of the need for Zimbabwe to reconcile with the West, reform its economy and offer compensation to white farmers who were chased off their land by Mr Mugabe.”

“We are happy that we are going to have another leader,” said one man in Harare, who gave his name as Yemurai, to my colleagues on Wednesday. “Even if it’s going to be another dictator, we accept a new one. Look, we are jobless, hungry and poverty-stricken. All we want is something different.”

But Mnangagwa is no reformist democratNicknamed “the crocodile” because of his political scheming, he is a comrade of Mugabe's from the liberation struggle and has been a fixture in the Zimbabwean state since its full independence. He's closely associated with the massacres of thousands of innocent civilians in the region of Matabeleland during a period of civil strife in the late 1980s.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe made it clear he won't be stepping down in a Nov. 19 televised address. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

And even if Mnangagwa turns out to be an improvement on Mugabe, simply swapping autocrats won't be enough for many. “It is a phase that Africa should accept — mistaken policies, mistaken positions — but it's a phase all the same,” Morgan Tsvangirai, a prominent opposition leader who even defeated Mugabe in the first-round of 2008 elections only to withdraw from the runoff amid threats of violence, told me six years ago. “What these nationalists and liberators created was one-man rule, family dynasties. We can't have that in Africa if it's going to be accepted as part of the democratic and prosperous future.”

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