HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe emerged for the first time Friday from military-imposed house arrest, presiding at a university graduation ceremony in a fragile show of normalcy even as former loyalists across the country demanded that he resign after nearly four decades in power.
In an extraordinary evening newscast, state broadcaster ZBC — for decades, a mouthpiece for the Mugabe government — reported on the surging campaign for his ouster and showed video of ruling party members saying he should resign.
Clad in a blue academic gown, the 93-year-old leader earlier joined academics on a red carpet and sat in a high-backed chair in front of several thousand students and guests, a routine he has conducted for many years as the official chancellor of Zimbabwe's universities.
This time, however, the spectacle was jarring because the authority of the world's oldest head of state, once seen as impregnable, is evaporating daily.
That Mugabe was permitted to go to the Zimbabwe Open University event possibly reflected a degree of respect by the military for the president, a former rebel leader who took power after independence from white minority rule in 1980. The armed forces are in a delicate position, sending tanks and troops into Harare's streets this week to effectively end the Mugabe era, while refraining from more heavy-handed measures that would heighten accusations that they staged a coup and violated the constitution.
Meanwhile, the ruling ZANU-PF party signaled impatience with Mugabe amid negotiations on his exit. Party branches passed no-confidence votes in all 10 Zimbabwean provinces, according to Nick Mangwana, a Britain-based member of the party.
Demonstrations were called for today in Harare to support the military's move against Mugabe, who drew applause from the graduating students on the outskirts of the capital only when he made brief, perfunctory remarks, usually to bestow degrees on delighted graduates.
"It was a long struggle," graduate Arthur Chipra said of the years of effort that went into his master's degree in conflict resolution. He declined to say anything when asked what he thought about Mugabe's presence at the ceremony, highlighting the lingering caution of many in a country where people have been prosecuted for criticizing the president.
Discontent with Mugabe has been growing because of the dire state of the economy, concerns about corruption and mismanagement, a sense that he is no longer physically capable of leading the country due to advanced age and the ambitions of his wife, Grace Mugabe, to succeed him.
The military stepped into the factional battles of the ruling party on Wednesday after the firing of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is close to the armed forces and was heavily criticized by both Mugabes.
Mnangagwa, who fled Zimbabwe after his dismissal, will return only after the process to remove Mugabe is complete, high-level supporters told the Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters about the matter.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for a return to civilian rule in Zimbabwe, urged any new leader to respect democracy and human rights, and said the country has a chance to put itself on a "new path."
As Mugabe tries to hang on in negotiations over his departure from office, he has asked for "a few more days, a few more months," the chairman of the influential war veterans' association in Zimbabwe told reporters.