The restoration of the judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan who were illegally removed by the chief of the army staff on November 3, 2007, is a question directly linked to the establishment of the rule of law in the country. And behind it is the question of keeping the army out of politics. No greater challenge on it has so far faced the state. If it cannot ensure the rule of law to protect its Supreme Court, how will it protect its citizens? How will the aggrieved people seek redress, and from where? Not from a court that is itself the victim of arbitrary, illegal action of a military official taken in blatant disregard of the constitution? All those in the ruling coalition who are now negotiating over the issue know that reality. And yet they have allowed April 30, the deadline fixed by them for the restoration, to pass. Sheepishly, they undertook more deliberations. Rumours of Fakhruddin Ibrahim and Aitzaz Ahsan walking out of the experts committee around, meetings are now being held in London between Mian Nawaz Sharif, Mian Shahbaz Sharif and Khwaja Mohammad Asif from the Muslim League side and Mr Asif Zardari and aides on the side of the PPP. To complete the recipe, Richard Boucher too was thrown in. As I write, Mian Nawaz Sharif extended his stay for a meeting on Saturday, in reports that the talks had stalled. If the new deadline of May 12 also passes without an outcome, the crisis will deepen. PML (N) was left with no choice but to walk out of the federal cabinet, turning the judges' reinstatement into a by-election issue that both Mian Shahbaz Sharif and Mr Asif Zardari plan to contest. That is what the London media see as a foregone conclusion. If the PPP believes they can form a new coalition with the Q without the Gujratis, and the MQM, they will have a number of problems while forming the government. Moreover, the rank and file of the PPP is unhappy at the overtures Mr Zardari is making towards the MQM as the hurt and humiliation suffered by them while he was in New York are too fresh to be forgotten. Some members of the party are also unhappy about a deal with Musharraf and feel it is too big an insult to the party's long and hard struggle against several military regimes. Many blame Musharraf's government for Ms Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Mian Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, stands on a high moral ground on the judges' issue, which won him the last election. His refusal to talk to Musharraf or bend before foreign pressure has won him respect in the eyes of his countrymen. From all the above, if any politician comes out bigger in size, it is Mian Nawaz Sharif. But a broken coalition, under the circumstances, affects that image and retards the nascent impression of a political progress. Should the coalition break, Muslim League (N) will resign from the federal government they joined conditionally. But they are likely to retain the government in the Punjab (where they have a majority), the largest province in the country in population and resources. They are not against legal reform, but they want it to follow the primary step of undoing Musharraf's crime of November 3. The entire lawyers community led by Aitzaz Ahsan, a PPP stalwart, is up in arms for the restoration of the judiciary: they have supported Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry ever since he stood up to Musharraf on March 9, 2007. Their protest is now a movement to which they have given some blood. The establishment must be trying its darned best to break them, but so far the lawyers have stuck together. When the chips are down they will be on the side of Muslim League (N) because of the total agreement on the unconditional reinstatement of the judges Musharraf removed. People at large, the mammoth crowds that followed the CJ's processions last summer, are also for the judges' restoration. Should this coalition break over the judges' reinstatement, all of us will suffer because the question of the establishment of the rule of law is compromised and so is the related issue of keeping the army out of politics. In immediate terms, there will be chaos as the lawyers, the civil society and the nationalist parties will all come out in protest if the judges are not restored. This will create a political chaos. If that happens, Islamabad and the Punjab will have conflicting sympathies with serious implications. The imposition of the governor's rule in Punjab could be an option; but Punjab is no walk over. Such a step will be seen as a political defeat for the federal government and lead only to more political chaos. Once again, the poor people of Pakistan are held to ransom as Byzantine intrigues deepen. Sisyphus is again pushing the heavy rock up the steep hill.