It seemed too good to be true. Without warning an election in Zimbabwe, which everyone assumed that Robert Mugabe would fix as usual, went badly wrong for the oppressor of that ruined country. Two weeks ago, the democratic will of the people of Zimbabwe became impossible to resist.
But it was too good to be true. Early euphoric hopes that Zimbabwe's long nightmare might suddenly be over have faded. This was not going to be a "people's power" moment of the kind we had seen in central and eastern Europe. The Zimbabwean people are too impoverished and intimidated to take to the streets. Thabo Mbeki, the leader of the country's powerful neighbour, South Africa, is too cowardly to step up to the responsibility of statesmanship. And Mr Mugabe's apparatus of patronage and coercion is still sufficiently confident to cling to power in defiance of the people's will.
As our special correspondent reports today, Mr Mugabe plainly intends to press ahead with a simple plan to retain power. First, he will have the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announce that the presidential election was inconclusive. This would require a run-off between him and Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Meanwhile, Mr Mugabe has given orders to the police force to prepare to take over the polling stations, with their numbers augmented by thousands of "war veterans", who will for the first time be given police uniforms and numbers.
Everyone knows the truth. Everyone, in Zimbabwe and around the world, knows that Mr Mugabe and his party, Zanu-PF, lost the elections. Everyone knows that the only reason for the delay in publishing the results is the need to falsify them. Everyone can guess that Mr Tsvangirai won more than 50 per cent of the votes for the presidency, but that ways are being found to bring the figure below 50 per cent to require a second round. And everyone knows that the so-called war veterans are no more veterans of the 1970s struggle against Ian Smith's government than Mr Mugabe is a stalwart for gay rights. They are Mr Mugabe's hired thugs; in effect the militias of a dictatorship.
The question, then, is how best the international community can help the people of Zimbabwe to achieve their democratic rights. Zimbabwe has long been one of the more fraught case studies of the doctrine of liberal interventionism. Tony Blair was blunt enough to say that if Britain could intervene, it should, and realistic enough to recognise the impossibility of such action. This country is, of course, constrained by its relationship with Zimbabwe as the former colonial power. Any attempt by the British to act on the sense that we owe a special obligation to the people of Zimbabwe has the effect of reinforcing the propaganda that has sustained Mr Mugabe in power for 28 years – an ideology of resentment against white imperialists.
Gordon Brown and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, have therefore pitched their response to the crisis about right: not too strident and emphasising the international community. Britain's tactical restraint throws into sharper relief, however, the lack of leadership from elsewhere. Once again, the United Nations has shown its weakness, while the unwillingness of Mr Mbeki to use his leverage as leader of the regional power is a continuing embarrassment.
Mr Mbeki did not exactly say, "Crisis? What crisis?", any more than those exact words crossed James Callaghan's lips. But they sum up the wilful blindness of a leader in trouble. "I wouldn't describe that as a crisis. It's a normal electoral process in Zimbabwe. We have to wait for ZEC to release," he told reporters yesterday after meeting Mr Mugabe in Harare.
Time is on the side of democracy in Zimbabwe. Mr Mugabe is 84, and a new leadership is emerging in South Africa. Jacob Zuma, who recently defeated Mr Mbeki to become leader of the ruling ANC, is in a strong position to succeed Mr Mbeki next year. Since the elections, Mr Zuma has met Mr Tsvangirai and called for the results to be published. The sense of the inevitability of the collapse of the Zanu-PF regime must surely sap its ability to carry on.
That, and the scrutiny of the outside world. That is why it is so important to report what is happening in Zimbabwe – and Mr Mugabe's regime knows it, which is why two foreign journalists were arrested and charged with "illegally observing an election". (As a telling footnote, bail was set at 300 million Zimbabwe dollars, about £4.)
Mr Mugabe's plan to cling to power can be frustrated by the bravery of the Zimbabwean people, honest reporting and a united international community, including a little more of the leadership of which Mr Zuma has shown he is capable. The hopes of a sudden liberation have faded; the certainty shines on that the end of Zimbabwe's misery is near.