Days after opposition parties triumphed in elections, lawyers chanting for President Pervez Musharraf's resignation were tugging at the barricades around the home of the judge whose ouster and house arrest helped trigger Pakistan's political crisis.
The newly elected leaders are already under pressure to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and his fellow sacked judges on the Supreme Court. It's one of several urgent issues that will determine the future not only of the U.S.-backed president, but also of a new government's effort to rebuild the country's battered democracy.
"Restoring the judges would put a bomb under Musharraf," said Nazir Naji, a commentator for Jang, Pakistan's top-selling newspaper. "He cannot afford to let this happen."
Voters delivered a thumping defeat to Musharraf's allies in Monday's parliamentary election, and enabled the victorious parties of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to announce that they would work together in a new government.
They owe much of their success to public anger at Musharraf's crackdown on the judiciary. But they are divided on whether to re-seat the judges. Sharif wants it to happen quickly. Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower and political successor, sounds cautious.
"Serious disagreement on this would be a real danger to the coalition," said political commentator Shafqat Mahmood. "It is a make-or-break issue."
Yet bringing back axed judges would set up an ugly confrontation with Musharraf and plunge the country back into political turmoil.
The former army strongman, who has resisted calls to resign as president, suspended the independent-minded Chaudhry on March 9 last year on charges of misconduct.
The move backfired spectacularly, sparking furious protests from lawyers and a snowballing pro-democracy movement, eight years after Musharraf ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup.
Chaudhry's fellow Supreme Court justices quashed his suspension in July. In October, Musharraf was re-elected, and the following month he swept the court away by declaring emergency rule — apparently because the judges were poised to rule his re-election unconstitutional.
Now those who drove the ensuing protests are demanding payback from Sharif and Zardari.
Lawyers in protest
Lawyers plan to march on the capital, Islamabad, from across Pakistan on March 9 if they don't get their way.
"Never ever in any country's history has a chief justice been arrested along with his children for 3 1/2 months," Aitzaz Ahsan, the leader of the protesting lawyers said from Lahore, where he too is under house arrest.
"How can parliament ignore this? How can parliament go along with Pervez Musharraf?" Ahsan said. "The lawyers are not going to ignore this."
Upping the ante, Chaudhry on Thursday addressed protesting attorneys in Karachi on a cell phone smuggled into his Islamabad home, where he is confined with his wife, two daughters and 7-year-old disabled son. "Victory is not far off now," he said.
Last week a small group of lawyers pulled away tangles of barbed wire on the road to Chaudhry's residence, but failed to break through a cordon of riot police.
Sharif capitalized on the standoff, addressing the crowd and insisting that the chief justice would be restored within days. "Musharraf's days are over," he declared.
But with Washington still voicing support for its key ally against al-Qaida, Sharif's prospective coalition partner, Zardari, stops short of demanding the judges' reinstatement, calling instead for restoring the independence of the judiciary — not individual justices. He says the final decision should rest with Parliament.
Mehdi Hasan, a prominent political commentator, said Zardari had reason to tread carefully.
Some of the ousted justices, including Chaudhry, were themselves promoted under emergency rule after Musharraf's 1999 coup — long before they moved against the president last spring. Others were involved in corruption cases filed against Bhutto and Zardari in the 1990s.
"The judiciary has become so politicized that it is not proper for these judges to sit on the benches even if their standpoint was justified," Hasan said.
One possible way out was for the judges to be "respectfully retired" to make way for a younger, untainted generation — and for Musharraf to bow out at the same time, he said.
But Musharraf appears determined to serve out his five-year term, and in an interview with The Wall Street Journal the day after the election, said it was legally impossible to bring back the judges he had axed.
"I can't even imagine how this is doable," he said. "I will take my decision when the time comes, if at all."