Maleeha Lodhi is the sharp-tongued, iconoclastic editor of Pakistan's best-known English language newspaper, a woman remembered by many in Washington for her three-year stint as the cultured ambassador of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the left-leaning People's Party government in the mid-1990s.

Until three weeks ago, Lodhi says, she never would have dreamed of going to work for a military regime, much less becoming one of its most visible mouthpieces. But three weeks is a long time in Pakistan, where political fortunes can shift overnight, democratic rule often proves dictatorial, and many people today view the army as the country's last remaining credible institution.

So Lodhi, 48, is about to return to Washington, this time as the ambassador representing Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power Oct. 12, suspended parliamentary rule and declared himself chief executive. Her rationale--one echoed by many Pakistani democrats who now say Musharraf deserves the benefit of the doubt--is simple.

"I feel that this is my country's last chance," she said this week. "My whole life I have opposed military rule, so I had to think long and hard" about accepting the job. But after meeting with Musharraf, she said she came away "extremely reassured. I've decided to put my career on the line, because I think the military are our last chance to reform or perish."

Similar arguments are being made by an array of liberal, secular Pakistanis, from journalists to scholars to politicians. Some endured jail and beatings as part of an opposition movement against martial law under Gen. Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, but now they, too, are becoming apologists for a new military regime. Their change of heart may be genuine, but it is also practical, because Musharraf has made it clear he does not plan to relinquish power any time soon.

In his first news conference Monday, he repeatedly brushed off questions about a timetable for the return to democracy, saying he intends to stay until he is satisfied that his sweeping agenda of uprooting corruption, reviving the economy and reforming the political system is well underway. He hinted at a possible referendum and pledged to keep the army out of daily governance, but his message was clear.

"I will act according to the requirements of the nation and not the outside demands," Musharraf, 53, told reporters. Members of the suspended parliament "were not the true representatives, and I want to give real democracy to the people," he said.

As the general settles into power, critics have begun to grumble about several of his controversial choices for top civilian advisory jobs, and about the unhurried pace at which he has begun establishing his government and policies. They note with concern that his top legal aide held a comparable position during Zia's repressive tenure, and that his foreign minister-designate had prickly relations with India as an ambassador there.

Even Lodhi's appointment, clearly an effort to reassure Washington, has been criticized as an example of cynical opportunism. One group of Pakistani Americans in Washington circulated a statement this week decrying her as a corrupt, "glorified hustler" and "controversial feminist" who is not fit to serve as ambassador.

Today, Musharraf named six ministers who will run the country's day-to-day affairs.

Some Pakistanis, while they welcomed the ouster of unpopular prime minister Nawaz Sharif, now say they worry that Musharraf will become too comfortable in power, or that despite his promises to respect civil rights, he will be tempted to clamp down if public discontent spreads or his reform efforts meet legal and institutional resistance.

"The best martial law is worse than the worst democracy," said Dawood Hassan, 40, a shopkeeper in Lahore. "There are no troops on the streets, but there is also no constitution. If you get arrested, where is the law? The army's job is to protect our borders, not to rule the people. Let us solve the problems with the leaders we choose."

But others, including those who were outspoken critics of Sharif's dictatorial style, insist that Musharraf must be given a chance to enact long-overdue reforms, from instituting a uniform sales tax to prosecuting wealthy bank loan defaulters. Once powerful and moneyed Pakistanis begin to feel the pinch, they argue, the firm hand of the military may well be needed to resist their pressure.

Najam Sethi, a prominent newspaper editor in Lahore whom Sharif briefly jailed this year for criticizing his government, said it is too soon to demand a timetable for restoring democracy. But he added that Musharraf must act quickly, make tough decisions while he is still popular and put lawbreakers behind bars before the public becomes impatient.

"It's too early to say if these guys will be as good as their word. We are keeping our fingers crossed," Sethi said.

Abroad, governments that initially expressed alarm about the coup d'etat continue to soften their stance. U.S. diplomats now say they will be looking for "benchmarks" rather than "timetables" in progress toward democratic rule. Last week, a visiting delegation of leaders from the Commonwealth countries, which had threatened to suspend Pakistan's membership, went home praising Musharraf--even though he refused their key demand, to meet with Sharif.

In his first weeks in power, the general has continued to make shrewd public relations gestures aimed at sustaining the initial goodwill. Departing from Pakistan's traditional VIP behavior, his motorcades are said to stop at red lights, and his aides declare imported goods at customs. Musharraf has also dispatched a distinguished former foreign minister and army chief to Washington, Europe and Japan as a special envoy.

Another reason for his honeymoon at home is that the failings of Sharif and Bhutto, who each served twice as prime minister after martial law ended in the 1980s, soured many Pakistanis on parliamentary politics. Both Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party are now widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent, leaving the country with no credible alternative to military rule.

Today, both parties are essentially leaderless--Sharif is in military custody and Bhutto, convicted of corruption, lives in exile in London. With parliament suspended, party officials are struggling to position themselves vis-a-vis the military and find a new voice in a society that stopped listening long ago. Some Muslim League members are trying to win military approval, while others insist on remaining loyal to Sharif; but few appear to be engaged in serious soul-searching.

"Our party is at a crossroads. Our leaders have acted like dictators, and politics have been personalized instead of institutionalized. This is our last chance to learn democratic values," said Mian Azhar, a senior Muslim League dissident who broke with Sharif months ago.

CAPTION: A portrait of Pakistan's new leader looks over a street in Lahore. Gen. Pervez Musharraf led a coup on Oct. 12, suspended parliament and declared himself chief executive.

CAPTION: Maleeha Lodhi, ambassador to Washington, had opposed military rule.

CAPTION: Musharraf has indicated he does not plan to give up power any time soon.

CAPTION: Elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's ouster received broad support.