For the past seven years, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has been supported by the West on the basis that, whatever his weaknesses within the country, he was still a bulwark against terror in the post-9/11 world. Better the dictator you know than the dark forces which could be unleashed by his demise was the outside view, even when the increasingly embattled leader declared a state of emergency and sacked the judges last year in his efforts to hold on to power.
If this vision of Mr Musharraf as the bastion of stability against chaos in the region was ever true – and it is hard to sustain it in view of his actual record – it is most certainly not true today as he faces impeachment proceedings from the two main parties in government led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Zardari, and his rival, the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The impeachment itself may or may not prove the occasion of his demise. To effect, it must be voted through by two-thirds of both houses of parliament. Mr Musharraf still has time to weave and cajole as he has always done to buy off his opponents. But as a symbol of his fading authority, even the threat of impeachment is indication enough of how far his power has waned in the past year.
True, his enemies are fractious and divided. Mr Musharraf still has support in the bureaucracy and among some of the traditional political factions. But what is most revealing in the present crisis is how little support he now has from Pakistan's power bases, particularly the army. Even Washington seems to have despaired of his ability to control his country.
Would his fall lead to the chaos some predict? Possibly. But then the truth is that Mr Musharraf's continuance in office has always been untenable since the elections earlier this year put in office foes whom he had previously imprisoned (Zardari) or exiled (Sharif). Pakistan's new government may be weak but it will be no weaker for a change in president, particularly if it can restore, as prelude to impeachment, the judiciary. No one can predict with any confidence a stable road to democracy for the country. But what is most striking about its present crisis is not how important Mr Musharraf is but how irrelevant he has become.