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Pakistan's quiet dictator treads a fine line

 It's not a good time to be a lawyer, student or journalist in Pakistan. 

It's a terrible time to be a human rights activist.

It's a downright abysmal time to be a political opponent of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

But if you are any one of the 99.9 percent of the rest of the 165 million Pakistanis, you hardly notice the emergency law anymore.

Yesterday I went for a jog/hike in the Margala Hills around Islamabad. The dense forest is veined with mountain trails filled with vultures, hawks, monkeys and, supposedly, panthers, although I didn't see any.

VIDEO: Musharraf weathers storm of criticism

What I did see was families with picnic baskets, groups of middle-school students chasing each other (and in turn being chased by their teachers) and young couples holding hands in the shadows behind boulders covered in thorn bushes.

The problem is, they are now doing it all at Musharraf's discretion.

The emergency rule Musharraf imposed earlier this month denies Pakistanis most of their basic rights: public assemblies of more than five are illegal; the state can make arrests without a warrant; and the courts are in disarray.

But most Pakistanis don't feel it. Musharraf wants it that way.

"Go to the villages," Musharraf told me last week, "and you will see that the people support this." He claimed it was "just a few human rights lawyers" (he really seemed to hate them) and "agitators" who have been "causing problems."

He may be deluding himself. Most analysts here say Musharraf has damaged his reputation, perhaps critically. But so far, he hasn't pushed people to the streets. Shops are open. Banks are open. Markets are full. Prices are the same as before emergency law.  

But some things are different. Riot police with wooden canes and plastic shields are posted a few hundred yards from the hotel where I am staying in Islamabad.  But mostly they sit around all day in the shade and are happy to have their pictures taken.

There were riot police at the base of the Margala Hills, too. I watched them have a cookout. 

Treading a fine line

Musharraf's reason for imposing martial law – he says it's to fight terrorism, although no one believes that, including western diplomats – was not to suppress the general public, but the courts. 

In particular, he hated the country's Supreme Court, which was widely expected to declare Musharraf ineligible to serve his upcoming five year term as president. 

But even some of Musharraf's supporters say he overreacted. He dismissed the Supreme Court, silenced the television media (he never bothered with the print media because so many Pakistanis are illiterate or semi-literate) and used the opportunity to hobble his political opponents. 

The reconstituted Supreme Court – filled with judges hand-picked by Musharraf – threw out legal challenges to his disputed re-election as president Monday, opening the way for him to serve another five-year term, this time solely as a civilian president.

Now Washington finds itself supporting a dictator, albeit a somewhat benign one, trying to achieve his technically illegal political goals without alienating the broader population. 

So far Musharraf has managed to tread that fine line, but there's no guarantee he'll be able to keep it up. One slip-up, one truly violent and deadly clash on the streets, and the balance Musharraf has been keeping could tip against him.