Two days after President Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan's stuttering transition to democracy by declaring a state of emergency and dismissing most of its Supreme Court, a familiar pattern has set in.
Lawyers who took to the streets were beaten and arrested by the hundreds. Meanwhile, the country's fractured political establishment waits to see what will happen next. It is a similar dynamic to the one that emerged eight months ago, when Mr. Musharraf sought to sack an independent-minded Supreme Court chief justice for his willingness to defy the government.
Then, as now, the organized political opposition has responded with caution and indecision. Yet if opposition leaders such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto were to turn the power of their parties to supporting the lawyers, the result could be transformative, experts agree – creating a popular movement that might persuade the Army to depose Musharraf – fearing that he could no longer govern.
But politics in Pakistan has always been personal and sometimes deadly. The threat of jail or even assassination – combined with political leaders' mutual animosities built up over decades of bitter power struggles – has often led to little action.
One leader in Ms. Bhutto's party, Syeda Abida Hussein, says she does not expect Bhutto to act for a week as Bhutto waits for the effects of Musharraf's move to become clearer. "I would not want her to do anything too quickly," she says.
On Monday, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said that parliamentary elections would be conducted as scheduled before Jan. 15. But virtually the only major political leader who so far remains outside prison is Bhutto.
Bhutto's delicate balancing act
Publicly, she has excoriated Musharraf, characterizing his state of emergency as martial law and claiming that his dictatorial tendencies are only fueling extremism. But privately, the waltz between Musharraf and Bhutto continues – and Bhutto is still considering her options, Ms. Hussein says.
For both, the lure of a union remains – giving Bhutto an avenue to power and Musharraf a means of salvaging some popular legitimacy. The new chief justice is favored by Bhutto, and the Army general who would replace Musharraf if he were ever to drop his position as Army chief, which he holds along with the presidency, is a close ally. "[Musharraf] is making a flat-out effort to create the conditions to make her come to his rescue," says Hussein. Indeed, virtually the only major political leader who escaped the purge is Bhutto. Hussein says she is being told by Musharraf's agents not to move or cause a stir. But other Pakistani political leaders have already leveled damaging charges against Bhutto, claiming that she is colluding with Musharraf.
For the middle class, which had been increasingly influencing the nation's political conversation before the emergency order blacked out all independent media, this is a crucial moment for Bhutto.
"This is Benazir's moment to shine," says Asha Amirali, a political activist with the People's Rights Movement of Pakistan, an Islamabad-based social justice advocacy group. "But if she decides to support Musharraf," she will be discredited.
Whether it would influence the legions of less-educated rural voters who make up the backbone of her support and back her with almost feudal devotion is a key question. Bhutto's father, one of Pakistan's most revered historical figures, was executed by a military dictator. Entering into an allegiance with the head of the military could significantly damage Bhutto's credibility, even among her loyal supporters.
Should Bhutto take it to the streets?
What is more certain is that Bhutto and all of Pakistan's political leaders could have a substantial impact if they threw their weight behind the lawyers and took their case to the streets, experts say.
Since March, the lawyers' community has become the nucleus of the larger movement against Musharraf. Through their efforts, Pakistan's judiciary was able to become more active and defiant. Musharraf said this activism was a major reason for the emergency order. The high court was set to rule this week in a case questioning the legality of Musharraf being both president and Army chief.
Even amid baton-wielding police, lawyers contended that "we still have a legal case," says Akram Shiekh, a lawyer who had filed a case against Musharraf's eligibility. "But personally I have serious doubts that the lawyers' community will now look to a legal recourse."
Instead, many have vowed to stay in the streets and boycott all legal proceedings, hoping to bring the country to a standstill. For all intents and purposes, Mr. Sheikh says, "there is no Supreme Court" now.
Some of Pakistan's political parties agree. But their leaders have been arrested. "Our leader Qazi Hussain Ahmad, is under house arrest now, we will join the street movement of the lawyers everywhere," says Shahid Shamsi, secretary of information for Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan's largest opposition Islamic parties. "We feel the opposition needs to unite now, and we would like to work with all parties – the Pakistan People's Party as well – in this struggle," he says, referring to Bhutto's political party.