It was meant to be a moment of national transformation: a text-book exercise in tolerance and democracy to decisively banish the demons of Robert Mugabe’s brutal misrule.
But a week after Zimbabwe’s violence-marred election, tensions are running high in Harare and the deal to bring the country back into the community of nations appears to be unravelling.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the 75-year-old former intelligence chief who served Mugabe for decades before ousting him in a coup last year, entered into what were probably Zimbabwe’s most credible elections in the country’s history betting he could secure his grip on power with an election victory transparent and peaceful enough to gain a stamp of approval from the international community.
The quid pro quo whispered into his ear by foreign, and particularly British, diplomats was an end to international isolation, a return to the Commonwealth, and financial assistance and investment to rebuild the devastated country.
Instead, he won only the very narrowest victory, the world has been shocked by troops shooting civilians in the street, and the opposition has refused to recognise the result.
Now Nelson Chamisa, his 40 year old populist challenger, has told supporters that the result was a fraud and has promised a “robust strategy” of political and legal pressures to force Mr Mnangagwa to step down.
The upshot is a febrile and uncertain atmosphere in which fear, suspicion, and rumour, are rife. And the implicit deal with the west is on the verge of collapse.
“This is obviously very bad for the country. A big setback for reengagement,” said one western diplomat in Harare. “The door is not closed, but they have got to get a grip on alleged assaults by troops.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Saturday said: “The UK remains deeply concerned by the violence following the elections and the disproportionate response from the security forces. We have urged all parties to work together to ensure calm.
“All candidates have a responsibility to ensure their supporters act with restraint and avoid violence, while any challenges to the results are resolved.”
Officially six people were killed and three remain in critical condition in hospital after troops were unleashed on the streets of Harare to quell an opposition protest that descended into rioting on Wednesday.
Mr Chamisa, who says he won about 200,000 more votes than the official results showed, is expected to file a legal challenge to the electoral results with the constitutional court this week in a bid to force a re-run of the election.
Mr Mnangagwa said Mr Chamisa is “free to do so” because Zimbabwe is a democracy.
But the prospect of second election would raise memories of 2008, when Mugabe and Mr Mnangagwa unleashed a violent campaign of killings and intimidation against MDC supporters to force Morgan Tsvangari, the leader of the MDC at the time, to withdraw from a second-round run off.
The opposition say they are already facing systematic campaign of harassment that they did not suffer before the election.
Police raided the the headquarters of Mr Chamisa’s MDC Alliance on Thursday, attempted to break up his first post-results press conference on Friday morning, and surrounded the house of the mother of Tendai Biti, a senior opposition MP, later that evening. Activists arrested during the raid on the party office were denied bail on Saturday.
The Sunday Telegraph understands that some MDC supporters have also carried out revenge beatings on soldiers, fuelling fears of chaos on the streets and further bloodshed.
One such incident occurred in Zengeza 2, a poor suburb and MDC stronghold south of Harare that troops rampaged through on Wednesday after the violence in the capital.
Witnesses described troops beating people up in shops and night-clubs, setting up road blocks and stopping taxis in a search of MDC activists.
“When they left the next day, Thursday, MDC youth started organising themselves, planning retaliation and revenge. When they saw two soldiers returning to their houses, they confronted them and beat them up,” said a local resident who asked not to be named. The army later sent in back up to carry its own revenge beatings, emptying the streets, the man said.
An MDC source close to Mr Chamisa denied inciting violence.
The uncertainty is further fuelled by reports of division at the highest level of government.
Several sources close to the Zimbabwean military told The Sunday Telegraph that troops were deployed on Wednesday not because police were unable to cope with the rioting but because the government is uncertain of their loyalty.
The sources said that the police are perceived to be dominated by Mugabe loyalists and were deliberately sidelined in security roles after the November military coup.
Many of them are suspected of supporting Mr Chamisa because of resentment at how they were treated, the sources said.
It was a distinction that residents of Zengeza 2 said they recognised.
“We are not going to fight with the police, they are on our side,” said one resident, who declined to give his name for safety reasons. “Most of these soldiers do not have their own houses, they are lodgers here and we going to make sure they are all evicted.”
At least one policeman patrolling southern Harare on Friday admitted that he was an MDC supporter and was convinced that Mr Chamisa had really won the election.
But he said he feared the implications of Mr Chamisa’s bid to challenge the results.
“The MDC should think of other ways of getting into power. I don’t see them getting into power without firing guns. Look what happened the other day, those people who were killed. That was an army job,” he said.