For a ruler who's given himself ultimate powers, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has provoked an awful lot of doubt over how long he can survive.

People are speculating that someone -- maybe his generals, maybe the United States -- will advise him to step down.

For years General Musharraf has been likened to a tightrope walker, defying al Qaeda assassins and earning U.S. praise, money and arms for his military.

Since he declared emergency rule on November 3 and suspended the constitution to sack judges before they sacked him, predictions of his downfall have spread.

Did you see his interview on television yesterday -- he was so nervous it was painful to watch, remarked Parveen, a teacher at an Islamabad school.

He should try and leave with dignity -- perhaps people will remember his good points.

He has revived the economy and spoken up for progressive values, but Musharraf has virtually become political poison, unloved at home and embarrassing Western governments who have needed him as a friend to fight al Qaeda and beat the Taliban.

He is in a very precarious position in the sense that he has closed all political options for himself politically, said Talat Masood, a retired general turned analyst.

But right now the army is behind Musharraf -- the trump card in Pakistan's polity -- and the United States doesn't have any alternatives.

He's not doing anything without the full support of the army, Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times and one of Pakistan's foremost political analysts.

But many believe that once the army sees Musharraf as a liability, he will get a tap on the shoulder and advice to quit.

If the pressure both internally and externally continues to mount, I have no doubt that his support within the army will disintegrate, said Shafqat Mahmood, a former minister and political analyst.

Most Pakistanis would like him to go now even though they've no idea what would happen next in their nuclear-armed, militant-threatened country.


But Musharraf's confidence in the army is clear from his readiness to quit as chief of army staff, the greatest source of his power, once the new judges installed in the Supreme Court strike down challenges to his October 6 re-election by parliament.

The military fears Pakistan will fall apart if politicians and judges are allowed to run the country, and is desperate to keep its man in the presidency, Sethi said.

Musharraf's only defenders have been politicians who owe him their jobs since he came to power in a coup eight years ago.

If the same politicians were to lead the next government after a general election that Musharraf says should be held by early January, the supposed transition to civilian-led democracy will be seen as a sham, analysts say.

Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader Musharraf had thought of as a possible ally, said on Tuesday he should quit, increasing his isolation. Bhutto's mistrust stems from fears that her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won't get a clear run in the polls.

Pakistan's omnipotent intelligence agencies can work with venal politicians to rig an election, as most people believe they did in 2002.

It would be easy to do in a country under emergency rule, run by a caretaker government picked by Musharraf, and with the main opposition either in custody or in exile.


Chances of free and fair elections are nil, according to Western diplomats.

Having come back from self-imposed exile with Musharraf's blessing last month, Bhutto is now in and out of house arrest, her movements blocked every time she tries to mobilize support.

Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf deposed has been kept in Saudi Arabia since his attempted return from exile was blocked last September.

The unraveling of a possible deal with Bhutto, probably removed Musharraf's last chance of getting backing from a political party with strong nationwide support.

Bhutto is already cozying up to other opposition leaders, and if she joins them in boycotting the election Musharraf's chances of survival will plunge, according to Mahmood.

Sethi, who has long advocated a Musharraf-Bhutto partnership, believes that they will still come to some understanding despite the antipathy in their camps.

The United States had been quietly encouraging Musharraf and Bhutto to work together and form a bulwark against Islamist forces whose influence has grown during the Musharraf era.