The fallout from the fatal shooting of two Pakistanis by an American CIA employee could prove to be the gravest threat yet to the survival of the weak, U.S.-allied Pakistani government, which has struggled to balance pressure from Washington to free the man with domestic desires to punish him.
The dispute over what to do with Raymond Allen Davis could hardly have come at a worse time for the ruling Pakistan People's Party, whose victory in elections three years ago restored civilian democracy to the country after nearly a decade of military rule.
Even before the Jan. 27 shootings, the party's popularity had plunged amid a sinking economy, chronic power shortages and reports of rampant corruption. Now, opposition leaders, Islamists, and media hardliners are using Davis' case to further belittle the government in a population rife with anti-U.S. feeling.
The incident could help pave the way for early elections likely to empower parties less friendly to U.S. desires to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban, some analysts said. It also could further strengthen the already powerful military and spy establishment, which is reportedly deeply upset over the Davis affair.
"The government is seen as a weak, helpless creature," said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst. "It's in trouble from all directions."
The U.S. says Davis, 36, shot the Pakistanis in self-defense as they tried to rob him in the eastern city of Lahore. The Americans also maintain that he has diplomatic immunity from prosecution because he was a member of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad's "administrative and technical staff."
Some U.S. lawmakers have even warned that Washington will cut off billions in humanitarian and military aid to Pakistan if Davis is not freed.
But this week it emerged that Davis was actually a CIA security contractor, though apparently under a diplomatic cover. That has caused more outrage in Pakistan, where some elements in the hyperactive media have long fostered fears of American spies and mercenaries roaming the country at will.
To date, the Pakistani government has failed to take a stand on whether Davis has immunity, and on Thursday it asked a court for three more weeks to make a determination some experts say should take less than 48 hours.
The government says that's partly because of conflicting statements from the U.S. about Davis' role. But the wavering is further undermining the government's authority and raising questions about who is really in charge of making decisions, analysts said.
"On one hand, the government wants to please the Americans and bow down to their wishes," said Talat Masood, a political and military analyst. "On the other hand, it wants to tell the Pakistani people it is not giving in" to U.S. pressure.
The incident has also exposed fissures within the ruling party.
Party member Shah Mahmood Qureshi has indicated he was pushed out of his position as foreign minister because he told party leaders that his advisers had decided Davis did not have blanket diplomatic immunity. Qureshi has recently been blasting the U.S. in front of rallies, and there's speculation he's using the case to further his political prospects _ with an eye on Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's job.
Ruling party spokeswoman Fauzia Wahab faced a backlash after making statements that appeared to back Davis' claims of immunity and stressing the importance of keeping friendly ties to Washington. Despite insisting she was only giving a personal opinion and not the party position, she lost her job.
Analysts say the U.S. government didn't do its People's Party allies any favors in its handling of the incident.
For one thing, one of its first press statements about the shootings called Davis a U.S. consulate employee as opposed to an embassy employee _ a distinction that could affect his immunity and which has been seized upon by the Pakistani media.
The U.S. has also sounded arrogant in its demands at times, even though American officials have expressed regret for the loss of life. The fact that the U.S. has said very little about the death of a third Pakistani in the case _ killed when struck by a car rushing to aid Davis _ has added to the sore feelings.
The case has been a gift to hardline Islamists and parts of the media who have long raged against the U.S. role in Pakistan. They've managed to seize the debate, making it not about dry diplomatic conventions but rather about threats to Pakistan's sovereignty.
The Pakistani army and intelligence agencies may be fuming over the case because it has partly lifted the veil that covers U.S. operations on Pakistan's soil, observers speculated. The military already was believed to handle the main levers of Pakistani foreign policy, and a diminished civilian government could give it even more room to assert its influence.
While acknowledging that early elections were a stronger possibility and a military coup always on the cards given Pakistan's history of them, analysts said they couldn't guarantee either. That's because Pakistan's such a mess, especially economically, that nobody really wants to take it over right now.
And it may be in U.S. interests for the People's Party to stay in power. If early elections are held, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N of Nawaz Sharif would likely emerge with the most seats, and that party is considered more in line with Islamists and less in sync with U.S. interests.
The U.S. could try to gain Davis' freedom by offering the shooting victims' families compensation _ so-called "blood money" that is accepted by Islam and Pakistani law. However, the victims' families, who are often surrounded by members of Islamist groups, have ruled out that idea.
Cyril Almeida, a leading Pakistani commentator, said the U.S. may simply have to count on Pakistan's courts to give Davis a fair trial. At the same time, he added, that's a precedent the U.S. may not want to set out of fear it could endanger its diplomats in other countries.
"They can't just see this in the context of Pakistan," Almeida said.