Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe entered an African summit accompanied by the meeting's host Monday, a sign that African leaders won't shun him despite Western demands they take a tough stance over his re-election in a tainted ballot.
But behind the scenes, some leaders were pushing for Mugabe to share power with his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who dropped out of Friday's runoff election after allegedly state-sponsored killings and beatings of his supporters.
While many African countries – including regional powerhouse South Africa – were unwilling to condemn Mugabe, criticism by the U.S. and Europe mounted.
France said Monday it considered Mugabe's government “illegitimate,” and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the African Union to reject runoff results.
Never miss a local story.
The summit should “make it absolutely clear that there has got to be change” in Zimbabwe, Brown said in London. “I think the message that is coming from the whole world is that the so-called elections will not be recognized.”
Zimbabwe's longtime ruler basked in the opportunity at the AU to show regional recognition of his victory, a day after he was sworn in as president for a sixth term.
He entered the conference hall alongside his host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a gesture of his status.
There was little overt warmth for Mugabe in public sessions. But while mingling with leaders before the opening meeting, he hugged several heads of states and diplomats, said an African delegate.
“He was hugging everyone, pretty much everyone he could get close to,” said the delegate, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't supposed discuss the private gathering.
During public speeches in this Red Sea resort, most AU leaders spoke of the “challenges” in Zimbabwe and none said anything harsh about Mugabe.
But Jendayi Frazer, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, said she believed that in private leaders would “have very, very strong words for him.”
At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino also suggested behind-the-scenes pressure, saying Mugabe's actions have “cast a negative light on some really good, democratic leaders in Africa.”
Key African leaders have long had close ties to Mugabe, renowned as a campaigner against white rule and colonialism. They are also reluctant to be seen as backing the West – former colonial rulers – against a fellow African, and many can't claim democratic governments in their own countries.
Not all were silent. In Nairobi, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Zimbabwe should be suspended from the African Union. “They should suspend him and send peace forces to Zimbabwe to ensure free and fair elections,” Odinga said.