Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai agreed Monday to start urgent negotiations toward forming a new government, a first but very tentative step toward ending that nation's political stalemate.
The deal signed on national television was vague, leaving aside nearly every key question about Zimbabwe's future after nearly a decade of ruinous decline. But it included clear language vowing an end to state-sponsored political violence, and set a deadline requiring that the talks conclude within two weeks.
The ceremony included a handshake between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, who had not met face-to-face since Tsvangirai founded the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in 1999.
The meeting generated a rare surge of optimism among Zimbabweans. Unclear is whether Mugabe and his ruling clique are prepared to negotiate away a significant share of power after 28 years of nearly total control.
Mugabe described the deal as amounting to an agreement to amend Zimbabwe's constitution and some of its laws. "Our constitution as it is should be amended variously," he said.
The opposition offered a more expansive vision, portraying the agreement as the framework for negotiating a new government that will resolve Zimbabwe's long-standing political and economic problems, including annual inflation rates that have run into the millions of percent.
"If we put our heads together, I'm sure we can find a solution. Not finding a solution is not an option," Tsvangirai said.
The deal came together under heavy pressure from the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and its appointed mediator, South African President Thabo Mbeki, who flew to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, for the signing ceremony. The negotiations are planned for Pretoria, South Africa.
In the March presidential election, Tsvangirai garnered the most votes, but not enough to win outright. He pulled out of the June runoff against Mugabe, citing escalating state-sponsored violence against his supporters.