Pervez Musharraf's endgame drama has taken a new twist after Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief flew to Pakistan to urge the President's political opponents to allow him a graceful exit from office.
Less than two days before Pakistan's government is scheduled to lay out impeachment charges against Mr Musharraf in parliament, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz arrived in Islamabad to intervene on the beleaguered President's behalf. He urged the government to agree to a deal that would allow Mr Musharraf to avoid impeachment.
The intervention of Saudi Arabia could prove crucial. Along with the US and China, the Arabian kingdom – a major source of economic aid – has considerable influence in Pakistan. "Yes, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz did visit Pakistan on Friday and met senior government officials," a senior government official told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "The main purpose of the visit was to find an amicable solution to the impeachment issue and that no one should become a laughing stock."
The stumbling block to agreeing a deal for Mr Musharraf's departure is the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the man whom the former general forced from power in a 1999 coup. Mr Sharif has insisted the President should not be granted immunity from prosecution.
Saudi Arabia has been closely linked to the long struggle between Mr Sharif and Mr Musharraf. Last year Prince Muqrin was again involved in Pakistan's politics when Mr Sharif returned from exile in Saudi Arabia to try to launch an election campaign, only to be immediately deported to Jeddah by Mr Musharraf.
The announcement 10 days ago by Pakistan's government, led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), that it intended to impeach the President triggered furious speculation as to whether Mr Musharraf would choose to resign or else fight for his political life. While publicly insisting he will stay, many of Mr Musharraf's former allies have deserted him and intense negotiations are under way to broker a deal for him to stand down.
Chief among the President's concerns is to receive a cast-iron guarantee that he will not be prosecuted and will continue to receive round-the-clock security. But for a self-styled saviour of Pakistan who believes he has rescued the country over the past eight and a half years, much will depend on the manner in which his departure takes place.
Even at this stage Mr Musharraf could decide to stay and fight. His senior lawyer, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, said that prior to allegations of corruption, subversion of the constitution and economic mismanagement being levelled at him by the PPP, he may have been prepared to stand down. Now, said Mr Pirzada, he was preparing for battle. "Maybe before, he might have thought about stepping down but not now," he added.
Since seizing power in 1999, Mr Musharraf has cheated both physical and political death several times. If he survives this latest crisis, it will be his most surprising turn yet. As one of his close allies, Senator Mushahid Hussain, often says: "Musharraf is like a cat with nine lives and he has used eight of them."
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