In a statement Monday night, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, chief of Zimbabwe's armed forces, said the military had held "further consultations with the president to agree on a road map" for the country. The plan includes the "expected" return of former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom Mugabe fired this month. The statement referred to Mugabe as the commander in chief and said the military was "encouraged by new developments."
Mnangagwa's dismissal triggered the military intervention last Tuesday, and thousands took to the streets to celebrate what appeared to be the end of Mugabe's rule. But on Sunday night, in what many expected to be a publicly televised resignation, the world's oldest head of state instead delivered a meandering speech in which he made it clear that he had no intention of leaving the presidency.
Analysts said military commanders may have worked out a deal that would lead to Mugabe's resignation after an interim period and his replacement by Mnangagwa, possibly during next month's congress of the ruling ZANU-PF party. For now, the military's vague statement about a "road map" left plenty of room for conjecture.
What was clear was that as long as Mugabe remains in power, millions here will be devastated. For years, as Mugabe's rule grew more erratic and repressive — and as the economy collapsed — Zimbabweans spoke openly about when and how the "old man" would go. The past week seemed to bring that outcome closer than ever.
Mnangagwa's return would appease a small but powerful segment of the ruling party. He has been a core member of ZANU-PF for decades and has strong connections to the security forces. But many Zimbabweans see him as corrupt and oppressive for having helped insulate Mugabe's regime for years before his abrupt falling-out with the president.
Chiwenga said Mnangagwa was "expected in the country shortly." He fled to South Africa after being fired, apparently to avoid the possibility of arrest.
Mugabe could still be forced out through constitutional channels. Lawmakers were expected to begin proceedings Tuesday to impeach him, but it was unclear how the military's statement would affect those plans. Some members of parliament who support Mnangagwa could now back away from impeachment.
Both military and civilian opponents of Mugabe appear eager to imbue any successor with an air of legitimacy that would be accepted by the international community. In its bylaws, a regional bloc of southern African nations includes strong language against coups.
"For years we've been victims of the lawlessness of the ruling party," said Lovemore Madhuku, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Zimbabwe. "If we abandon the law to get Mugabe out, we are not safeguarding ourselves from more lawlessness in the future."
Mugabe has taken the law into his own hands for much of his rule, encouraging his government to seize land belonging to white farmers by force and ordering the detention of political opponents. This month, a 25-year-old American woman, Martha O'Donovan, was arrested for subversion after she allegedly insulted Mugabe on Twitter. Two weeks ago, four people were detained for booing the president's wife at a rally.
But when Mugabe's own government finally turned against him, it declined to use the same brute force or extrajudicial power he has employed for years. Aside from wanting to avoid allegations of coup-plotting, Zimbabwe's military may have been showing deference to the only president Zimbabwe has ever had and a hero of the country's liberation struggle. In recent years, many critics of Mugabe's leadership have blamed his wife, Grace, who is often portrayed as a puppet master manipulating a senile man. Grace Mugabe was seen as angling to be her husband's successor in the wake of Mnangagwa's dismissal.
Amid the uncertainty, a debate is raging among legal experts and lawmakers about how long an impeachment process would take. Paul Mangwana, deputy secretary of ZANU-PF, said it would take only two days. Madhuku said it would likely take months if the law were followed.
Mangwana said that the parliament would set up a committee responsible for impeachment on Tuesday and that it would issue its decision Wednesday.
"The main charge is allowing his wife to usurp government powers," he said.
But after the military's announcement, it was unclear whether impeachment proceedings would move forward. If Mnangagwa is permitted to return to the country as a part of a military-led compromise, some anti-Mugabe members of ZANU-PF might accept a compromise that would keep Mugabe in power.
On Sunday, the party voted to remove Mugabe as its leader and expelled his wife for life, so accepting his role as head of state now would be a stunning about-face.