Nation-wide protests in Pakistan last week by lawyers, journalists and opposition activists - in Lahore in the east, Karachi in the south, Quetta in the south-west as well as in the capital Islamabad - point to a swelling challenge to the authoritarian rule of President and Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf.
In how great a danger is he? Musharraf has ruled Pakistan since 1999. That year, he carried out an army coup, declared a state of emergency and dissolved parliament. In April 2002, he had himself elected president in a rigged referendum followed by flawed national elections. These produced a parliament which confirmed him as president while allowing him to retain his post as army chief - a dual role prohibited by the constitution.
Unless there is a major upset - like a popular uprising or an army intervention against him - this state of affairs will last until October when the life of the current parliament and Musharraf's five-year presidential term both come to an end. What will happen next?
Pakistan's future will depend on whether Musharraf decides to hang on to power by force, declaring a state of emergency and crushing the opposition or, alternatively, whether he opts for a return to democracy. This would mean conducting free and fair elections and allowing exiled leaders - such as former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - to return home.
Few observers have any real expectation that he will follow this second course. Musharraf is a brave, sensible and pragmatic leader, but his instincts tend to be dictatorial. Some people say he believes himself to be indispensable - always a dangerous fantasy in any politician.
The general view is that Musharraf wants the election of a new tame parliament in the autumn which will re-nominate him as president and allow him to retain his post as army chief. This would give him the power to dissolve parliament if it failed to obey him and give him control of all aspects of security including Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
This is an ambitious agenda for a man whose pro-American policy is highly unpopular, who faces opposition from both democrats and Islamists, and whose popularity with the public, if the polls are to be trusted, has slumped in recent months. Above all, Pakistan is experiencing increasing street violence, occasional political murders and a breakdown of law and order.
The question now being asked in Washington, London, Delhi, Kabul and other capitals is this: Can Musharraf pull it off? Can he quell the opposition and survive the present crisis? Or might he have to bow out or risk being kicked out before the end of the year?
The outcome will have an impact far beyond Pakistan. It will affect the situation in Afghanistan, because weakness or chaos in Islamabad will give greater licence to jihadis in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to join the war against the Americans across the border. It will affect the situation in Kashmir because Musharraf - to his great credit - has repeatedly sought a solution to this conflict in dialogue with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Above all, it will affect relations with the US, which has been giving Pakistan about $850 million a year, mainly to keep the NWFP and its tribal agencies quiet.
The current troubles started on March 8 when Musharraf sacked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary - a man he had originally placed in the court to support him, but who had started to show signs of independence. In particular, Chaudhary had begun to press for an investigation into the disappearance of some 400 people, mainly from his own region of Balochistan, who are believed to have been captured or killed by Pakistan's powerful intelligence services. The sacking of Chaudhary led to fighting in Karachi on May 12 between pro- and anti-Musharraf gangs and tribal groups which left 48 people dead.
The bloodbath has triggered demonstrations by large numbers of lawyers protesting at what they see as a threat by Musharraf to judicial independence.
This past week, rowdy street marches and demonstrations by lawyers, journalists and their supporters forced Musharraf to cancel a recent decree imposing tight controls over the media which would have muzzled freedom of expression. At the same time, Musharraf is engaged in a confrontation with radical Muslim groups and in particular with some 3,000 hard-core seminary students of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, who have been threatening to resort to suicide bombings if Sharia law is not imposed on the country. They are only a fraction of the estimated 16,000 talibs (students) in the capital.
There are persistent rumours that Musharraf might seek to strike a power-sharing deal with the exiled Benazir Bhutto, whose Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is said to be regaining support. This could provide a way out of the crisis.
What will Washington do? It should urge Musharraf to allow a return to democracy, even if the outcome is unpredictable. If, on the contrary, it lends its backing to five more years of Musharraf's autocracy, this could encourage street violence, fuel Islamist radicalism and disenchantment among pro-democracy forces, and breed more anti-American sentiment. It is not an easy choice for the Bush Administration, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.