Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met President Asif Ali Zardari after the Supreme Court issued him a contempt notice and offered to resign if parliament want him to quit.
Supreme Court issued a contempt notice to Gilani on Monday, ordering him to appear before the court for failing to pursue long running corruption cases against the president and other officials.
The move could throw the country deeper into crisis.
"In these circumstances, we are left with no option, as a first step, to issue a show cause notice," the notice issued by the seven-member bench stated.
"The prime minister should appear personally in court on Jan. 19."
The court order was a sharp escalation in the government's battle for survival, in which it faces twin assaults from the military over a mysterious memo and from the Supreme Court over the implementation of numerous orders over the last two years.
And any hint of government instability sends shockwaves around the world, given the country of 180 million people faces a rampaging Taliban insurgency and has one of the fastest growing nuclear arsenals in the world.
"This is not a small, usual thing," Pakistani law minister Moula Bakhsh Chandio told reporters outside the Supreme Court. "This is a Supreme Court order on which we will consult our committee of experts. We will take the necessary steps in light of the constitution and the law."
While Gilani is the one facing a contempt hearing, most observers say the court's real target is President Asif Ali Zardari.
During the 1990s, Zardari had multiple cases of corruption and even murder lodged against him, all of which he says are false and politically motivated.
An amnesty deal that protected him from prosecution was nullified in 2009 and the court has been pushing for the government to re-open and investigate the corruption cases against Zardari. The government refuses to do so saying Zardari enjoys immunity as the head of state.
"Theoretically the prime minister can be sent to the jail if he is convicted of contempt of court," said former law minister Khalid Anwar.
"But I don't think that will happen. The danger is that if he is convicted, he would be disqualified from being a member of the parliament," he added, meaning he would no longer be eligible to be a prime minister.
Anwar said Gilani would likely appear before the court and then the attorney general would request that he not appear regularly, which the court would likely agree to.
He's not the first sitting prime minister to appear before the court. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was also issued a contempt of court notice by then-chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah, and he appeared before the court.
Gilani is in no immediate danger, however, said Anwar. Any contempt charges would be strongly fought by the government, dragging proceedings out.
"It's a lengthy process," he said.
The civilian government separately embroiled in a dispute with the military over an unsigned memo sent in the wake of the US commando raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town last year.
The memo, allegedly drafted on the direction of former ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani, asked for US help in reining in the army, which the memo said was planning a coup.
When an American businessman revealed his role in writing and delivering the memo, the army went incensed. Haqqani was forced to resign, and "memogate" has locked Zardari and the military in trench warfare ever since.