Mugabe "was quite popular for a long time, and he also was very popular among Western leaders who, for the longest time, saw Zimbabwe as an example of what could happen with a well-led government," explained Craig Timberg, the outgoing Washington Post bureau chief for southern Africa, in a NewsHour Insider Forum.
The country did well with its agriculture-based economy during Mugabe's first two decades in power, from 1980 to 2000.
But "over the past decade, you've seen Mugabe become more ruthless, you've seen the economy deteriorate, you've seen political repression, in all its forms, spread," Timberg said. "And now, he is incredibly unpopular."
Mugabe was born on Feb. 21, 1924, in Matibiri village in Southern Rhodesia -- now known as Zimbabwe -- one of four boys. He studied at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, graduated in 1951 and went on to earn six more degrees through distance learning, some during his time as a political prisoner. He was a teacher in Zambia and Ghana before turning to politics.
He returned to Southern Rhodesia and in 1960 joined the National Democratic Party, which later became the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union. When the Zimbabwe African National Union was formed in 1963, he left ZAPU and joined the rival party.
In 1964, he was arrested for wanting to replace white minority rule with a one-party Marxist regime, and spent 11 years in a prison in Salisbury, now known as Zimbabwe's capital Harare.
While still in prison in 1974, he was elected to lead ZANU, and assumed control a year later.
Under international pressure to end white minority rule in the country, moderate leaders signed an agreement in 1978 that paved the way to a power-sharing government.
But Mugabe and the leader of the ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo, refused to participate in subsequent elections, which were not recognized internationally. Eventually, all parties agreed to hold talks on a new constitution for a new Republic of Zimbabwe with elections in 1980. Mugabe became the country's first prime minister.
He worked to build a tenuous coalition with his ZAPU rivals and the white minority. But trouble brewed when he fired Nkomo from his cabinet in 1983. A peace accord was reached in 1987, and ZAPU merged into the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and Mugabe named Nkomo vice president.
In 1987, the prime minister seat was abolished, and Mugabe assumed the role of president. He was re-elected in 1990 and 1996, and again in 2002, when there were claims of vote-rigging and intimidation.
Mugabe's policies became increasingly controversial, including a costly intervention in the Second Congo War (1998-2003), the expropriation of white-owned farms, and the printing of hundreds of trillions of Zimbabwean dollars, which sparked hyperinflation in the country.
In March 2008, President Mugabe's ruling party, the ZANU-PF, lost the parliament and it appeared he lost the presidency to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change.
The government delayed releasing the vote tally for weeks. In May, the electoral commission said Tsvangirai had won but not by enough to avoid a run-off, which was set for June. During the ensuing campaign, supporters of Tsvangirai were beaten, arrested and killed, and he eventually dropped out of the race. Mugabe then won the run-off with 85 percent of the vote.
Weeks of tense negotiations aimed at ending the political crisis led to a power-sharing agreement in which Mugabe would remain president and Tsvangirai would become prime minister. Formation of a unity government, however, stalled as the country's economic troubles worsened affecting the already weak education and health systems.
Food and oil shortages and massive internal displacement exacerbated the lack of access to clean water for much of the population, triggering a cholera outbreak that killed more than 700 people by December 2008, according to U.N. estimates.
In recent months, a growing number of foreign leaders, including President Bush, have called on Mugabe to resign. But the Zimbabwean leader said the cholera outbreak was under control and maintained that Western leaders were exploiting the situation to try to remove him from his post.
"He's in his own parallel reality," said J. Anthony Holmes, Cyrus Vance fellow in diplomatic studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Basically, it doesn't compute that so many people are suffering so badly, are so mal-nourished and starving, that are dying of cholera."
According to Holmes, Mugabe blames U.S. and British sanctions for the deteriorating conditions and therefore doesn't feel any compelling need to deal with the situation, and he is willing to hold out for carte blanche in terms of distributing aid, so it will be up to the international aid community to give up some of its preferred controls.