The hearing represents one front in what amounts to an assault on the government by the powerful military, opposition politicians and the Supreme Court. The showdown has all but paralyzed decision making in the nuclear-armed country, and threatens fresh turmoil just as the U.S. wants Islamabad’s help in negotiating an end to the war with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
The fault line is the same one that has plagued Pakistan since its creation in 1947: an army that can’t stomach taking orders from elected politicians, and which has three times seized power in coups. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government has given the generals control over foreign and security policy, but the civilian leadership and the top brass have never seen eye-to-eye since Zardari took office in 2008.
Tensions spiked last week over an unsigned memo delivered to Washington last year offering the U.S. a raft of favorable security policies in exchange for its help in thwarting a supposed army coup. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani criticized the army for cooperating with a Supreme Court probe into the affair, and has said the standoff is nothing less than a choice between "democracy and dictatorship."