Last Friday, Musharraf suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. Reportedly, Musharraf confronted Chaudhry with allegations of abuse of power and then asked him to retire. When Chaudhry refused, Musharraf declared him "non-functional" and referred the matter to the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), a five-member body of judges who can probe the conduct of their peers. The government insists that the move is constitutional and justified. But critics of the government whose ranks seem to swell by the day say the government wanted to sideline Chaudhry, an abrasive if efficient judge appointed two years ago by Musharraf, because his by-the-book rulings may have proved a threat to Musharraf in an election year.
Lawyers in cities around Pakistan responded by boycotting court proceedings, and held mass rallies to protest Chaudhry's treatment. Newspapers report that police have taken to searching cars for black suits surefire proof that the owner is a lawyer and may be up to no good. When the chief justice refused to use an official car sent to take him to a Supreme Court hearing earlier this week and tried to walk to court instead, police forced him into a vehicle as supporters chanted, "Go Musharraf, go!"
But the heavy-handed tactics seem to be backfiring. Whatever his intention, Musharraf's move has become a lightning rod for opposition by moderate Pakistanis frustrated with the slow pace of democratic reform. "This impinges so directly on the independence of the judiciary," says Samina Ahmed, Islamabad-based project director for the International Crisis Group. "This is the type of issue that will change the way people look at the executive the last few apologists for this regime. There's a certain amount of desperation to it."
The sense of desperation was underscored when the Supreme Judicial Council ordered Pakistan's newspapers and television stations not to report on the hearing. The country's Media Regulatory Authority [Pemra] also reprimanded television news shows for airing live footage of protesting lawyers, forcing two off air for a short time.
Foreign diplomats and government officials this week questioned Musharraf's judgment. Some have suggested it's the beginning of the end for the military man who seized power in a 1999 coup. "I think he has ruined himself," says Lieutenant General (Rtd) Hameed Gul, the former director general of Pakistani intelligence organization Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). "He's not going to be able to placate the forces he has unleashed."
Asim, 23, a computer science student watching a cricket match in a cheap kebab restaurant in Islamabad, agrees. "The people are angry. The law should be equal for each," he says. "You can't just make laws to suit you as you go along. This [Chaudhry's suspension] is not good for our country."
The U.S. says the judicial crisis is an internal Pakistani matter. On a trip to Islamabad, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told reporters that while the U.S. supported Pakistan's moves toward democracy, this specific problem is "something the Pakistani system is going to have to deal with in its own way."
With another hearing set for Friday and the country's lawyers promising more protests, the biggest threat Musharraf faces may not now be not from extremists, but from the moderate political center on whose behalf he claims to be ruling.