You can usually tell when a drama involving a military dictator reaches its final act. Allies desert him, paranoia subsumes all common sense, he lashes out causing not inconsiderable damage. In the end, the fall from power is inevitable. He's booted off stage so that the life of the nation may continue without him.
So it seemed with President Musharraf when he fled Pakistan for Britain in 2008. But social media have rewritten the old template: people may still argue over precisely what role Twitter played in the Arab spring, but there is no doubt Facebook played a key role in The Dictator's Extra Act. It was only after Pervez Musharraf received hundreds of thousands of "likes" on his Facebook page that he decided to cast himself in the role of civilian saviour and ride back into town just in time to contest the upcoming May elections.
But he overlooked the fact that, while he was the main actor in this drama, someone else was writing the script. First, the masses who had pressed the "like" button on their computers didn't actually turn up to greet him at the airport when he returned. Then the courts disqualified him from standing for elections in all four constituencies in which he'd planned to run. Finally, on Thursday, when he appeared at court for a bail hearing on charges related to his 2007 clash with the judiciary, the judge ordered his arrest – whereupon the former commando swiftly departed the premises with his security detail and holed up in his luxury farmhouse on the outskirts of Islamabad, while his Facebook page was updated to include a petition protesting "the ill-conceived decision of Islamabad high court". At the time of writing the petition has 12,894 signatures – the general is no doubt awaiting responses from the rest of the 877,397 people who "like" his page. So far, so farcical.
But although The General's Return has, as yet, been little more than a sideshow in the runup to elections, the fact that riot police were quickly deployed to Musharraf's farmhouse to protect rather than arrest him raises a far more serious question: one that has to do with impunity and the power of the military.
There's no doubt the chief justice whom Musharraf tried to dismiss in 2007 would like nothing better than to watch due process of law send the general to prison on charges related to the wrongful confinement of judges. But will the military allow its former chief of army staff to be imprisoned for acts carried out while he was in uniform? It is impossible to overstate the significance such an outcome would have in a nation of which it is said, "other countries have an army; in Pakistan, the army has a country". And does the military have the power to stop such a thing from happening?
Certainly, early signs suggested that Musharraf would be treated in a manner quite different to civilian politicians, for whom imprisonment following their fall from power has almost been a rite of passage: just hours after he sped away from the high court Musharraf's farmhouse was declared a "sub jail" and his presence there termed "house arrest". Threats to his life from the Taliban were given as the reason he couldn't be shifted to a regular jail.
On Friday morning he appeared in court again – the police claim to have arrested him overnight, while his threadbare political party insists he gave himself up. He wasn't in handcuffs but even so, the sight of the former head of the army surrounded by the police who had him under arrest was shocking. The judge placed him under judicial remand pending trial for two days, and added clause 780-A, pertaining to terrorism, to the list of charges against him. He's now back under house arrest for the period of judicial remand, and on Sunday he must face charges in the anti-terror court. If this wasn't enough, the senate, on Friday, unanimously passed a resolution calling for his trial under article 6 of the constitution for derailing democracy and abrogating the constitution.
Where will this unexpected act end? Anyone who wishes to see democracy strengthened can only wish for Musharraf to be prosecuted – fairly. But, of course, a dramatist's (or indeed novelist's) dreams might wander in different directions: picture the one-time president general standing for elections and all the political parties withdrawing their candidates so that he's handed a victory by default. Could there be any sweeter revenge against autocracy than to watch a former dictator lumbering around parliament, shunned even by those who must sit with him on the opposition benches, watching as other people make history?
Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into over 20 languages. She has also written a work of non-fiction, Offence: The Muslim Case. A trustee of Free Word and English Pen, she grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.