By Barbara Plett
BBC news, Islamabad
The triumphal road show taken by Pakistan's chief justice at the weekend has been hailed by local commentators as an "epic journey" with "few parallels in the country's history".
The president faces some difficult choices
Tens of thousands of lawyers, political activists, and members of the public turned out to cheer on Iftikhar Chaudhry as he drove from Islamabad to Lahore.
Mr Chaudhry is whipping up support against his suspension by President Pervez Musharraf, who is also head of the army.
The general temporarily removed the top judge from office to face charges of misconduct two months ago.
The chief justice called this a blatant attack on the independence of the judiciary.
This is the third time Mr Chaudhry has taken his campaign on the road. He was well received in the provinces of Sindh and North West Frontier.
But both those trips were dwarfed by the massive turnout in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, which is the legal and political heartland of Pakistan.
Thus it appears the judicial crisis has the potential to turn into a nationwide challenge to the government, especially because protests in Mr Chaudhry's favour have long since turned into a broader campaign against military rule.
For the past two months no other topic has gripped the country's pundits, political players, scribes and chattering classes like this one.
Broadly speaking, the emerging consensus is that the president has four options.
- To ride out the crisis in the hope that the protests run out of steam. The experience of Lahore suggests that is not working.
- He could simply accept that he had been wrongly advised, reinstate the chief justice, and look for a scapegoat. But many say it is too late for that now.
- He could declare a state of emergency and impose martial law. That might lead to violence on the streets, and to international condemnation, including from his strategic ally the United States.
- He could reach out to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, generally seen as the most popular political force in the country. According to the rumoured outlines of such a deal, corruption charges against Ms Bhutto would be dropped and she would be allowed to return from exile, if the PPP supported General Musharraf's presidency. However, the PPP says it will not accept the president if he stays on as army chief.
President Musharraf has warned lawyers not to exploit a "purely constitutional and judicial matter" for political gain. He says he has nothing personal against Mr Chaudhry and will accept whatever verdict the courts deliver in the case.
But the longer the protests go on, the more questions there are about the general's future and how the crisis will affect his plans.
There is now a nationwide challenge against the government
President Musharraf wants to be re-elected this autumn by the outgoing parliament before it is dissolved for national polls. And it is believed he wants to keep his post as army chief.
Both steps could be contested. The view of many analysts is that President Musharraf moved against Justice Chaudhry because he wanted a more pliable man in place to face any constitutional challenges to his plans.
It is not clear what will happen, but it is clear the status quo is shaky: extending nearly eight years of military rule is looking increasingly untenable.