ISLAMABAD - Decorum was abandoned as accusations ricocheted between the wood-panelled walls of Pakistan's national assembly on Monday night. "Murderers! Murderers of innocent people!" screamed an MP from a religious party, his yellow turban shaking as he wagged a finger towards the government benches.
Five female parliamentarians, their faces concealed behind black and white burkas, slapped the benches with open palms. Another mullah stood up and started shouting. The speaker strained to maintain order.
Others were less captivated by the debate on last month's siege of the Red Mosque, in which more than 100 people died. One man snoozed at his desk. Across the vast hall others started whispered conversations. And high above them Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a dapper man with a pinched, clean-shaven face, looked on impassively from his giant portrait on the wall.
In August 1947 Jinnah founded Pakistan in the hope of forging a homeland where the subcontinent's Muslims could live in peace and harmony. Sixty years later, it is going badly wrong. The military runs the country, headed by a dictatorial and unpopular general. Huge protests have filled the streets, the courts are defiant and the Taliban control the tribal belt. So, in part, does al-Qaida, and the United States is threatening to use force. Suicide blasts have rocked the big cities - and there may be worse to come.
President Pervez Musharraf's rule has been "catastrophic" but his regime could yet "turn really nasty" said Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of The Idea of Pakistan. "The country hasn't had a crisis of this magnitude since the 1970s when East Pakistan split off and became Bangladesh. But in this case it's an Islamist movement that wants to transform the country from within."
Nerves are on edge. "We are very scared," said Enver Baig, a senator with the opposition Pakistan People's party, who says his wife calls him several times a day to check he is still alive. "If we don't mend our ways, it could spell the end of the country. The Islamists have sleeper cells in every city. We could have a civil war."
Others do not believe the situation to be so grave. The army has ruled for 19 out of the past 30 years and some say the crisis could be a necessary spasm to flush it from power. A secretive meeting between Gen Musharraf and the exiled opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Abu Dhabi last Friday has triggered speculation of a power-sharing deal. Neither side has confirmed the details but supporters say it could offer a peaceful transition to "full democracy"; critics call it military rule under another name.
What is certain is the blistering pace of change. Last Friday afternoon Talat Hussain, a popular TV host, recorded a show about clashes outside the Red Mosque earlier that day. As he finished, word came through that a government spokesman had been assassinated in western Baluchistan province. Moments later a suicide bomber struck in central Islamabad. Then came the news of a meeting between Gen Musharraf and Ms Bhutto. Hussain scrapped his programme and started again.
"News doesn't have a very long shelf-life here any more," he said.
March of the militants
The gravest threat comes from the tribal belt, where pro-Taliban militants have already declared war on the state. Since July 3 - the first day of the Red Mosque siege - suicide bombers have killed more than 200 people, mostly tribal policemen and soldiers. Al-Qaida is also involved. Yesterday a Libyan commander who escaped a US military prison in 2005 urged Pakistanis to overthrow Gen Musharraf. "Destroy the fortification of his weak army and the nest of his filthy intelligence agency and the core of his infidel rule," Abu Yahia al-Libi said in a video statement.
The fighting is most intense in Waziristan, a mountainous area along the Afghan border where US intelligence says al-Qaida is regrouping. There, Islamabad has lost control. Pakistani soldiers are largely confined to base and travel by helicopter - much like Nato soldiers fighting the Taliban on the far side of the border. When they venture out, they are attacked. A firefight near Miran Shah on Tuesday left 15 militants dead, according to unconfirmed army figures.
The defiance is spreading. In the tribal belt pro-government leaders are beheaded, barbers are threatened for cutting men's beards and music shops are torched. Last weekend armed men seized control of a religious shrine in Mohmand tribal agency, near Peshawar, and renamed it the New Red Mosque. Worryingly, it is reaching major cities - a Harry Potter book launch in Karachi was cancelled after police found a large car bomb outside a shopping centre.
The civilians have also shattered Gen Musharraf's aura of authority, led by an unlikely hero. Last March the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry - a cranky man with a liking for rambling speeches - refused an order from the general to resign. After days of pressure from Gen Musharraf's intelligence bullies, Mr Chaudhry's defiance triggered protests that swelled into a powerful movement. Black-suited lawyers took to streets across the country, hurling insults at the general. The kindest called him a "dog".
The lawyers were bolstered by the rickshaw class - ordinary people tired of soaring food prices and of watching the rich elite zip past in their new Mercedes - and other societal changes.
An explosion of private television channels has revolutionised Pakistani politics. Previously coverage was censored; today channels zing with lively debate. Live coverage of riots in Karachi in early May, when armed government supporters killed dozens of rivals, was a turning point for Gen Musharraf.
The civilian revolt reached its climax 10 days ago when, against all expectations, the supreme court threw out Gen Musharraf's case against the chief justice. Never before had a civilian taken on a military leader and won. Gen Musharraf was silent, and US and British policies excusing the military dictatorship went up in smoke. "It shows that while Pakistanis may be at times incapable of operating a democracy, they want one," said Dr Cohen.
White House war
Gen Musharraf is also under fierce pressure from the White House, where some officials seem to think they invaded the wrong country after 9/11. The US has given Gen Musharraf's government $10bn (£4.9bn) in aid. But now, frustrated with Pakistan's slippery approach, policymakers feel they have been short-changed. Last week the US Congress passed a law aggressively linking aid to progress in the "war on terror".
Hawkish officials suggested that unilateral strikes on al-Qaida bases in Waziristan might be the only way to prevent a fresh attack on the US. "We must be clear with Gen Musharraf that if Pakistan won't take out al-Qaida, the United States will," Lee Hamilton, a member of President George Bush's homeland security advisory council, wrote on Monday.
The Pakistani government is angered and alarmed. "Irresponsible ... counterproductive," thundered the foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, last week. "This may be election season in the United States but it should not be at our expense," he said.
Analysts say strikes are unlikely in the short term. But what is certain is that anti-American hostility is becoming deeper and more bitter. "Red Mosque, Waziristan - this is all being manipulated by America," said accountancy student Mazhar Qayyum in Islamabad. "They've just been playing us since 9/11 - paying dollars and turning the Pakistani army into killers of Muslims."
After years of casually disdaining his rubber-stamp parliament, Gen Musharraf now needs it to shore up his rule. He wants the chaotic national assembly - the product of a rigged vote in 2002 - to return him as president for another five years later this year. For this he needs a deal with Ms Bhutto, and has reportedly promised to lift long-standing corruption charges against her. The US and Britain are behind him, apparently convinced Gen Musharraf is still their best bet.
But the plot could easily come unstuck. The supreme court could shoot it down. And it is an especially high-stakes game for Ms Bhutto, whose father was hanged by a general and who sneered at Gen Musharraf as a vile dictator during her nine-year exile. Now she risks a revolt from supporters who consider Gen Musharraf to be political poison.
"This is very demoralising and could undermine the whole process," said Talat Masood, a retired army general and liberal commentator. "Benazir has bracketed herself among the opportunists. Her support will dip, and it will be taken up by the religious right."
The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan called it a "fatal mistake" that could drive Pakistan into the hands of extremists. "She's completely out of touch. I fear that Pakistan could become another Algeria. We need someone who believes in talking, not guns," he said.
It appears that the bluff, barrel-chested former commando is running out of options. A poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute yesterday put Gen Musharraf's popularity at 34% - down 20 points since February. If politics fails, he could impose a state of emergency. But that, according to the International Crisis Group, would accelerate the slide towards a "military-led, failing state status prone to domestic unrest and export of Islamic radicalism domestically, regionally and beyond".
Most of all Gen Musharraf wants to avoid the fate of the last military ruler, Zia ul-Haq, who died in a mysterious plane crash in August 1988. Friend and foe fear that without a soft landing this time, the general could take the country down with him.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007