"There's going to be a civil war." You heard it all the time in the old Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. People fretted about it constantly in South Africa in 1994. They have been worrying about it in Lebanon. Now they're predicting it for Pakistan - but nine times out of 10, the forecast is false.
"We are very scared," Senator Enver Baig of the opposition Pakistan People's Party told the Guardian last week. "If we don't mend our ways, it could spell the end of the country. The Islamists have sleeper cells in every city. We could have a civil war." And if the "Islamists" won that civil war, then people with a world view not dissimilar to Osama bin Laden's would control 165 million people, an army of 600,000 and an estimated 50 nuclear weapons.
But the civil war hasn't happened yet, and it may never come to that. In fact, there are as many hopeful signs as frightening ones. Pakistan is certainly becoming unstable. The government has effectively lost control along the frontier with Afghanistan, which is increasingly dominated by pro-Taliban militants.
The week-long siege of radical Islamists holed up in the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the capital, in mid-July culminated in the deaths of over a hundred militants and soldiers.
The military dictator who has ruled Pakistan since 1999, General Pervez Musharraf, is a living incarnation of the phrase "one-bullet regime": he has already survived four assassination attempts. More than 200 Pakistani soldiers and civilians have died in terrorist attacks since the siege, and the alarmists are predicting civil war.
On the other hand, there is a thriving free press, including (at last) independent television stations. The economy has been growing fast, and a bit of the new prosperity is trickling down.
President Musharraf is the fourth general to seize power in Pakistan's 60-year history, but the country has always returned to civilian rule in the end. Last month Pakistan's Supreme Court, in an act of defiance to military rule, threw out Musharraf's accusations of corruption against chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
The charges were fabricated to prevent the chief justice from interfering with the general's plans for another five-year term. (He planned to have himself reappointed by the same national and regional assemblies, chosen in rigged elections in 2002, that obediently voted to appoint him.)
What actually happened, however, was that the charges turned Chaudhry into a national hero. There is a good chance that this crisis could end in a restoration of civilian democracy: that is how all three previous bouts of military rule ended.
The fanatics and extremists dominate the sparsely populated areas along the Afghan frontier because the population there is identical to the Pashtuns across the border who are the main base of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they have been radicalized by 28 years of foreign occupation and civil war in that country. But the vast majority of Pakistanis live in the flat, fertile lands along the rivers, and what they want is not martyrdom but peace, justice and prosperity.
They stand a better chance of getting those things if democracy returns, even if previous intervals of democracy have usually ended in massive corruption.
Musharraf is probably on the way out unless he declares martial law under the pretext of fighting the Islamists - and it is not certain the army would follow him if he did. So he is trying for fake democratization. Twice, in January and again last month, he has met in Abu Dhabi with Benazir Bhutto, the exiled head of the largest opposition party, trying to make a deal.
Despite the highly publicized violence, there is little chance Pakistan will fall under Taliban-style rule. There is perhaps a one-in-three probability that Musharraf will cut a deal with Bhutto that leaves him in power for a while, but that wouldn't really end the crisis. And the odds on a return to real democracy within the year are probably better than even.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose column appears in 42 countries. His new book is The Mess They Made: The Middle East After Iraq.