HARARE, Zimbabwe — Feeling their way through uncharted territory after the military placed President Robert Mugabe under house arrest, Zimbabweans ventured into streets patrolled by armored vehicles on Thursday and awaited some kind of signal of what a new era might bring.
Many in this land of 16 million people have known no president other than the 93-year-old Mr. Mugabe, a onetime leader of the country’s anticolonial struggle who traded the liberator’s mantle for the iron fist of one of Africa’s most enduring autocrats.
Early Wednesday, the military announced that soldiers had confined Mr. Mugabe and his flamboyant and ambitious wife, Grace, to their home. While the military denied that a coup was underway, its actions signaled clearly that Mr. Mugabe no longer exercised supreme power.
The streets of the capital seemed calm on Thursday, but some residents said they detected a muted anticipation of possible change. There were no signs of arrests or violence, but soldiers in camouflage lounged on armored personnel carriers mounted with machine guns, and a lone fighter jet roared above, its mission unclear.
The military’s action has sent shock waves around the region. The Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc that includes Zimbabwe, was set to meet on Thursday in Gaborone, Botswana, to discuss the seeming slow-motion coup and the apparent impasse that has flowed from it.
As fevered speculation swept the capital, Reuters reported on Thursday that Mr. Mugabe was resisting pressure to join some kind of transitional arrangement that would embrace opposition leaders.
The military crackdown came a week after former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, once a close ally of Mr. Mugabe, fled the country when the president dismissed him.
With a blend of guile and brutality, Mr. Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980. In that period, the country’s once-thriving economy has crumbled into widespread joblessness and deprivation, forcing many into an informal economy of street vendors and traders.
His trump card in negotiations after the military’s action is likely to be a broad reluctance among regional and Zimbabwean leaders to embark on a new era as a direct result of a coup.
“I think he will play hardball,” Ibbo Mandaza, an author, academic and publisher, said in a telephone interview.
Reuters also reported that Mr. Mugabe insists on remaining in office until the completion of his term next year. Mr. Mandaza predicted that the longtime leader would probably try to focus negotiations on the restoration of constitutional rule and on the military’s return to barracks.
“I think people are trying to get away from the coup situation,” Mr. Mandaza said. “My own feeling is that these negotiations will be protracted,” and that Zimbabwe’s immediate future would be “very uneasy and very uncomfortable.”