LAHORE, PAKISTAN — Down lanes and alleys thick with heat and commotion, where the clip-clop of horses pulling carts competes with the roar of dust-churning cars, the vendors of this ancient city spread out a profusion of wares.
Colored glass, crockery, copper engravings. Plastic buckets, wicker baskets, floral bouquets. The peddlers of the Old City area take pride in offering almost anything anyone could want.
Yet many Pakistanis, including the shopkeepers, say that what they truly need is not available here -- or anywhere else. With their country deep in political crisis, they say they are pining for a real national leader, someone selfless, inspiring and, above all, new.
Instead, their choices seem limited to the same names that have dominated the political scene for the last 20 years -- Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf -- and plenty of Pakistanis are sick of the lot.
"We've seen what they've done to this country. We don't seem to be able to get rid of these people," said Mohammed Shafiq, 42, a local civil servant who stopped for a cup of milky tea in the old bazaar. "I don't know why Pakistan is repeating the past."
It is a common complaint these days as Pakistan staggers into the third week of a state of emergency that Musharraf, the deeply unpopular president and army general, declared Nov. 3. Under de facto martial law, the constitution has been suspended, civil liberties have been frozen, and thousands of lawyers, human rights activists and opposition party workers have been thrown behind bars.
But many people on the street still speak freely.
And at tea stalls and in cafes, in offices and classrooms, many Pakistanis make clear their belief that their country ought to wash its hands not only of emergency rule and Musharraf, but also of some of the opposition figures jockeying to take his place. The time has come for wholesale change, they say.
Bhutto and Sharif each served two terms as prime minister. Allegations of corruption marred their tenures, and continue to make them unpalatable choices to many in this poor, debt-ridden nation.
Sharif, who was deported when he tried to return to Pakistan in September, remains in exile in Saudi Arabia, but is still head of his party and wants to come back to his homeland.
After eight years in self-imposed exile, Bhutto made a dramatic return last month amid rumors that she was close to cutting a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, who has ruled Pakistan since mounting a coup -- overthrowing Sharif -- in 1999. He was reelected president last month in a vote by lawmakers that many observers say was a sham.
The White House, which considers Musharraf a key ally in the battle against Islamic extremism, openly backs an accommodation between Musharraf and Bhutto as the best solution for Pakistan.
In weekend meetings in Islamabad, the No. 2 official at the U.S. State Department, John D. Negroponte, urged the two leaders to resume their stalled talks and tone down their increasingly confrontational rhetoric.
"If steps were taken by both sides to move back toward the kind of reconciliation discussions they were having recently, we think that would be very positive and could help improve the political environment," Negroponte told reporters in the Pakistani capital Sunday.
A day earlier, the U.S. diplomat met with Musharraf and pressed him to rescind emergency rule. But there was no sign that Musharraf would comply.
Since her return to Pakistan, the charismatic Bhutto has received tremendous media attention, especially from the West, where many portray her as a champion of democracy and progressive policies.
"I do appreciate the support the international community has given in asking Gen. Musharraf to ensure that the elections are free and fair, to condemn the emergency, and ask for him to retire as chief of army staff," she said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition."
But not all the people Bhutto seeks to lead agree with that image of her. Many believe that she had her chances as prime minister and failed. They resent what they view as U.S. attempts to prop up Musharraf and foist Bhutto on them.
Nor is Sharif an acceptable alternative.
"They just want to be in power again," Mazhar Iqbal, 27, who runs a tea stand, said dismissively. "I want somebody new, who loves this country and thinks of all the people of this country."
No one fits that bill, added art student Mehru Nisa, 20. She said that the lack of inspiring new choices, and fatigue with the same old faces, had made many of her peers despair of politics.
"Right now we can't believe anyone, because of their dishonesty and insincerity," said Nisa, as she drew sketches in the placid, leafy courtyard of the red-brick National College of Arts in downtown Lahore. "They are all selfish. They don't know about the poor. They become rich, rich, rich, and the people become poor, poor, poor."