ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The fallout from the fatal shooting of two Pakistanis by an American CIA employee could prove to be the gravest threat yet to the survival of the weak, U.S.-allied Pakistani government, which struggles to balance pressure from Washington to free the man with domestic desires to punish him.
The dispute over what to do with Raymond Davis could hardly have come at a worse time for the ruling Pakistan People's Party, whose victory in elections three years ago restored civilian democracy to the country after nearly a decade of military rule.
Even before the Jan. 27 shootings, the party's popularity had plunged amid a sinking economy, chronic power shortages and reports of rampant corruption. Now, opposition leaders, Islamists, and media hard-liners are using Davis' case to further belittle the government.
The incident could help pave the way for early elections likely to empower parties less friendly to U.S. desires to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban, some analysts said. It also could further strengthen the already powerful military and spy establishment, which is reportedly deeply upset over the Davis affair.
"The government is seen as a weak, helpless creature," said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst.
The United States says Davis, 36, shot the Pakistanis in self-defense as they tried to rob him in the eastern city of Lahore. The Americans also maintain that he has diplomatic immunity because he is a member of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad's "administrative and technical staff."
Some U.S. lawmakers have even warned that Washington will cut off billions in humanitarian and military aid to Pakistan if Davis is not freed.
But this week it emerged that Davis was actually a CIA security contractor, though apparently under a diplomatic cover. That has caused more outrage in Pakistan, where some in the hyperactive media have fostered fears of American spies and mercenaries roaming the country at will.
The Pakistani government on Thursday asked a court for three more weeks to determine whether Davis has immunity; some experts say that should take less than 48 hours.
The wavering is further undermining the government's authority and raising questions about who is really in charge of making decisions, analysts said.
"On one hand, the government wants to please the Americans and bow down to their wishes," said Talat Masood, a political and military analyst. "On the other hand, it wants to tell the Pakistani people it is not giving in" to U.S. pressure.