Sitting behind bars in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif is fighting the toughest battle of his life against Pakistan’s security establishment of the country. But the same is the case with the establishment, which is facing the most difficult challenges of its 70 years of hegemony.

Sharif and his daughter Maryam have refused every single offer of the establishment to mend fences and strike a deal. The security establishment is also facing pressure from within the country after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to annex Kashmir. Retired Brigadier Ijaz Shah, a crony of General Pervez Musharraf, was brought in as interior minister to dismantle the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), but despite a brutal crackdown against the party, he has not been able to bring it down.

Meanwhile, a report prepared for the US Senate by the bipartisan Congressional Research Service has indicated that the Pakistani security establishment covertly manipulated politics before and during the general elections of 2018 with the motive of removing Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N from power. Sharif might not be in the good books of President Donald Trump’s administration for his tilt toward China and Turkey, but certainly this report will change the minds of many senators in the US.

This is another blow to the image of the Pakistani establishment, which is still trying to end the country’s global isolation on the diplomatic front. Perhaps this is the reason that according to reliable sources Nawaz Sharif has been reached out to again by the establishment, and this time his younger brother and PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif was also urged to abandon the anti-establishment stance and go into exile in London for a couple of months.

The PML-N itself is divided over this issue, as many of its stalwarts including Shahbaz believe that Nawaz Sharif should accept a deal and go to London along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz and, in return after a few months, the establishment will compensate him in the form of suspending his prison sentence and ending the current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. However, Sharif neither trusts the establishment nor is willing to leave the country.

If the whistleblowers are correct, Sharif has conveyed to the establishment that he will not leave the country and wants certain members of the establishment and the judiciary to confess publicly that they ousted him from power deliberately and rigged the ballot to keep him out of office. PML-N financial supremo and ex-finance minister Ishaq Dar, while talking to this correspondent from London on this issue, said: “Nawaz Sharif will not enter into any understanding which forces him or Maryam to leave Pakistan or politics.”

Dar also maintains that the establishment is not trustworthy, as in past it apologized to him after two brigadiers who were sitting in a joint investigating committee against him had falsely reported that he failed to file tax returns for 20 years but after that apology, instead of giving Dar a clean chit, the establishment forced him into exile.

Dar’s remarks clearly reflect the lack of trust between Sharif and the establishment.

So right now after not been able to persuade Sharif to make a deal, the establishment is left with very limited options. It can oust Prime Minister Imran Khan through an in-house change and make a “forward block” whereby the PML-N under Shahbaz Sharif with the help of the Pakistan Peoples Party can form a government in the center and in Punjab. However, the problem remains that Shahbaz and the other old stalwarts of the PML-N cannot attract the needed vote bank, and without the masses’ support a Shahbaz-led government would meet the same fate that Imran Khan’s is meeting in the form of a lack of political credibility both at home and abroad.

Another option for establishment is to cling to the current political discourse as long as it can and hope that Washington and Riyadh will keep injecting dollars and riyals to save Pakistan’s sinking economy. This option, however, is not a long-term solution, as with the begging bowl Pakistan’s economy may survive but it will never grow.

The last option for the establishment is a full retreat from its current stance, letting the PTI sink and holding a new general election, and after that returning to the barracks.

Nowadays the security establishment is under huge pressure to respond to Modi’s annexation of Jammu and Kashmir by waging a war against India, but on the other hand it is being criticized heavily in every nook and corner of Pakistan for being responsible for engineering the political discourse and bringing Imran Khan to power with a fractured mandate. So a tactical retreat could avert the pressure to wage war, something that in any case is impossible with the bleeding economy, and it would also lessen the criticism from the masses for its involvement in politics. This could mean that Imran Khan will be made the fall guy for not being able to garner international support on the Kashmir issue and for the economic turmoil in Pakistan.

However, for this to happen, Nawaz Sharif will need to make sure that the pro-establishment and old-school stalwarts of his party do not abandon him as they did when he returned to Pakistan with Maryam to allow himself to be arrested in July last year. On that day had Shahbaz Sharif and his son Hamza along with other party stalwarts shown some courage and led the mammoth gathering of PML-N supporters to the airport, the history of Pakistani politics could have changed entirely.

The PML-N missed that chance because genetically it was not a political party that was known for taking on the establishment. However, first Sharif and then his daughter Maryam Nawaz changed the narrative of the party entirely, and that is the reason that the establishment is trying everything to stop the pair from walking further on the anti-establishment path. The problem remains that the longer Sharif and Maryam sit in jail the more popular they will become, and with each passing day the economic turmoil and diplomatic isolation of Pakistan are getting worse.

It is almost game over for those characters who rigged the political discourse, and within a few months, Imran Khan or someone from the establishment will be made the fall guy for the political turmoil, foreign-policy failures and the economic meltdown of the country. The security establishment eventually will negotiate with Sharif and other democratic leaders for a face-saving exit from this failed undeclared coup.

Probably Khan and a few people from the security establishment will come hard at Sharif in a bid to regain the lost battle, but it is too late. If Sharif did not surrender in the toughest of times, he will never do it now when the writing is clearly on the wall that it is all over for Imran Khan and his backers in the establishment.