Thousands of protesters preparing to march on the Pakistani capital gathered in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, buoyed by a last-minute court order that a peaceful march could go ahead and a government promise to obey the ruling.
The festive air at the home of cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan was in stark contrast to the grim determination at the blockaded home of cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, another would-be protest leader whose march has been banned.
Khan and Qadri are not officially allied though both are calling for the ouster of a government they condemn as corrupt, which came to power after a sweeping general election victory for the party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last year.
"We are the ones who pose the biggest challenge to the government, that is why they are opposing us so strongly," Qadri's spokesman, Shahid Mursaleen, said late on Wednesday.
"The police are killing us and our people only have sticks to protect themselves."
The protests have raised tension in the nuclear-armed country of 180-million people and have revived concern about the central issue in Pakistani politics: competition for power between the military and civilian leaders.
Any threat to Pakistan's stability alarms its allies and neighbours, who fear rising religious intolerance and the Islamist militants who find refuge there.
Some officials had accused elements within the powerful military of orchestrating the protests to weaken the civilian government. The military has declined to comment but has previously said it does not meddle in politics.
Many analysts doubt whether the military wants to seize power, but there is a widespread perception it could use the opportunity to put the civilian government under its thumb.
Sharif is relying on the military for security in the face of the challenges, and, as a result, the government is likely to be less determined to pursue polices the military objects to, such as the prosecution on treason charges of former military leader Pervez Musharraf, analysts say.
Passengers wait for their transport after authorities block roads with containers in Rawalpindi. (AFP Photo)
Divide and rule?
By early on Thursday, the government appeared to have developed a strategy to blunt the challenge to its power with the contrasting approaches to the two marches neatly splitting its foes.
Late on Wednesday, a court ruled that Khan's march would be permitted, as long as nothing illegal was done, and Sharif's interior minister said the government would respect that ruling.
Allowing Khan's march demonstrated that the government tolerated peaceful protests and obeyed the courts, who are rapidly emerging as Pakistan's third power centre after the military and the fledgling civilian government.
At Khan's home, protesters were chanting, listening to music and preparing to set off on the 370-km (230-mile) journey form Lahore to Islamabad, said Asad Umar, a member of Parliament from Khan's party.
Khan is protesting about alleged irregularities in last year's polls, which marked the first transfer of power from one elected government to another in coup-prone Pakistan's history.
As Khan's supporters prepared to march, Qadri's supporters, who had planned to join them, were isolated and blockaded in the area around his home by shipping containers placed across roads by the authorities. Those inside said food and water were running low and telephone services in the area were suspended.
The fiery cleric had vowed to overthrow the government by the end of this month. His supporters, many of them drawn from his network of Islamic schools and charities, have been involved in several deadly clashes with police.
An army truck goes through a security checkpoint on the approach to the parliament building in Islamabad. Police sealed off Pakistan's capital on the eve of the country's Independence Day, in a bid to foil mass protests aimed at toppling embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. (Reuters Photo)
Tension has gripped parts of the country since last week with running clashes between police and Qadri's supporters in Lahore over several days leaving at least one protester dead.
Some have accused the groups of being aided by the powerful military establishment to undermine the government, diverting attention from more pressing issues like an offensive against the Taliban in the northwest and the country's economy.
On Monday Qadri, told AFP he wanted an "interim national government" consisting of technocrats and experts.
Sharif attempted to defuse some of the tension with a television address on Tuesday evening in which he announced a Supreme Court probe into vote-rigging allegations.
But the proposal was almost immediately rejected by Khan, who heads the country's third largest party and has called the 2013 election the most fraudulent in the country's history.
Political analyst and author Imtiaz Gul said the protests were one of the biggest challenges Sharif has faced since being elected for a third stint in office last year.
In a country which has seen three coups in its 67-year history, the threat of army intervention always hovers in the background at times of unrest.
But while Gul said there was a "real danger of bloodshed and violence", he added a coup was unlikely, though the coming days could leave the civilian government weakened.
"Based on the past experiences and in view of the the current national and international environment, the army will not possibly intervene," he said.
"However it may still use its political clout to nudge the politicians away from confrontation."
The military is rumoured to be unhappy with the way the Sharif government has pursued criminal charges, particularly a treason case, against former army chief Pervez Musharraf.
The former general returned to Pakistan last year in a bid to re-enter politics that went disastrously wrong as he was hit with a series of criminal cases dating back to his 1999-2008 rule.
(With Reuters and AFP inputs)