Zimbabwe's civil-rights activists and the main opposition party are joining forces in what they describe as a broad alliance to mobilize the people to back constitutional reform.

About 600 opposition and rights activists opposed to President Robert Mugabe's 25-year rule attended a conference Saturday in Harare intended to rekindle the reform movement.

Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, grew out of civil-rights protests in the late 1990s. Among those who emerged as a leader from the surge of opposition to Mr. Mugabe's policies was Tendai Biti, a student activist who went on to be elected to parliament for the MDC and who is also a top human-rights lawyer.

Mr. Biti says the aim of the movement is to united people in a long-term commitment to change that goes beyond seeking new leadership.

"If we are going to build a new Zimbabwe, it is not going to be a new Zimbabwe simply because Mugabe is going to go," he said. "Age is not going to spare him. So, he is going to go, whether he likes it or not. This is a proper broad alliance. You have churches there... students, labor. So, we are trying to rekindle the connection with the golden era of the Zimbabwe civic movement, the period of the late 1990's."

Mr. Biti and several other contributors to the first meeting of this new civil-rights movement say that Zimbabwe's democratic institutions have been substantially closed down in the past six years.

Mr. Biti says Zimbabweans at the grass roots level need to be engaged in debate about a new constitution, so a document will emerge that people are prepared to defend.

"If you want real change in Zimbabwe you have to start with the constitution," he said. "For the first time we have a proper broad alliance, everyone is there. If we can continue engaging ourselves, then this will be a small beginning for the process of rebirth. We have been waiting for some good news, particularly after the stolen election of 31st of March 2005."

Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party won a majority in the March elections, which the United States and other western countries said were neither free nor fair.

Speakers from civil rights organizations at the conference sent a strong message to the opposition that it should not participate in elections for a senate created by Mr. Mugabe's latest constitutional amendment. The amendment was approved last month by Zimbabwe's parliament, which is dominated by Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party. The MDC opposed the amendment.

The MDC's national executive met Friday to discuss whether to participate in the senate elections, but said it needed to further consult with its membership before making a final decision.

Mr. Mugabe said elections for the senate will take place before the end of the year.