- Emmerson Mnangagwa was removed by Zimbabwe's leader Robert Mugabe as vice president on Monday after a bitter tussle with the first lady over succession.
- Mnangagwa, 75, had been one of the president's closest allies since Mugabe took power in 1980 after leading the fight against British rule.
- Zimbabwe's ruthless security forces have often violently broken up street demonstrations against the authoritarian president.
President Robert Mugabe has exerted almost total authority over Zimbabwean politics for decades — but the sacking of his most senior long-time confidante could spark repercussions beyond his control.
Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was dismissed and humiliated on Monday after clashing with Mugabe's wife Grace, who is now in prime position to succeed her husband.
The removal of Mnangagwa, who has powerful military connections, has laid bare the rivalries inside Zimbabwe's political establishment as Mugabe, 93, shows increasing signs of old age.
"The situation reflects an enormous amount of unpredictability," said Piers Pigou of the International Crisis Group. "We are moving into unchartered territories."
"It appears Mugabe is prepared to surgically remove significant sections of the party's historical support base... to try to consolidate his own position and the future leadership."
Mnangagwa, 75, quickly fled into exile, but he vowed to return and launched a direct challenge to Mugabe by calling for members of the ruling ZANU-PF party to desert the president.
Mugabe reacted by expelling him from the party, which will hold its annual congress next month when Grace — a hugely divisive figure — could be appointed as one of the country's two vice presidents.
"The ball is in Mnagnagwa's court, but what are you going to do outside the party?" Pigou said.
"The biggest question is what kind of elevation do we see for Grace Mugabe."
The potential leadership role for Grace, who has many opponents within the party and government, could even threaten the future of ZANU-PF.
"This is the beginning of the end of ZANU-PF, it is a total destruction of Mugabe's legacy," independent analyst Dewa Mavhinga told AFP.
"If Grace ascends to the top, she will fall because she has created so many enemies. She has been reckless. ZANU could be destroyed from within."