DHAKA - There has been a silent coup in Bangladesh. In a country that only a few months ago was celebrating a Nobel peace prize for one of its best known sons, armed soldiers are patrolling the streets.
Elections have been cancelled, and political leaders are being rounded up. At least nine former ministers have been arrested without charge and thrown into jail without a hearing. Fundamental human rights, including the freedom of speech, have been suspended. It is now illegal to oppose any decision of the Government. All political activity is banned.
The story of how this happened is the story of two women. For the past 15 years, politics in the world's third most populous Muslim country has been dominated by twin matriarchs - divas who hate each other so much they will not even cross paths, let alone speak to one another: Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed.
They lead the two major political parties, the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, and they have alternated as Prime Minister since democracy was restored in 1991.
But this year, the long-running feud between them finally boiled over on to the streets as they refused to wait for elections to decide who should be the next Prime Minister.
As Zia tried to fix the elections in her favour, Hasina brought her strongmen on to the streets. At least 45 people were killed.
With the chaos at its peak, President Iajuddin Ahmed stepped in, declared a state of emergency, and cancelled the elections. The international community looked on with relief. But the story that was not told was how that night the military effectively seized power: how it was the generals who went to the President and told him to declare the emergency, and how it is they who are now behind the "caretaker" Government that is rounding up political leaders.
A country that only months ago was celebrating its emergence on to the world stage at last, with economic growth of 6 per cent, is now looking into the abyss of a return to military rule. The arrival queues at Dhaka airport may still be full of young Britons of Bangladeshi origin, but the country they are returning to visit is now steeped in uncertainty.
People here are now asking whether the era of the two grandes dames of Bangladeshi politics may finally be over. Much has been made of the fact that, perhaps uniquely in the world, politics here has been entirely dominated by women for more than a decade. But it was no triumph of feminism. Hasina and Zia's power came from dead men.
They are relatives - and living symbols - of the two most powerful figures in Bangladesh's 36-year history as an independent country. Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man who led Bangladesh to independence from Pakistan - only to be assassinated for his own authoritarian attempts at single party rule.
Zia is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who seized power and became military dictator shortly after Mujibur's death, only to be assassinated himself. For the past 15 years, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by dead men.
That is clear from one look at the cadres of Hasina's Awami League party, who all still wear the black coat favoured by Mujibur.
The word in Dhaka now is that the two women are under unofficial house arrest, under the watchful eye of security forces there for their "protection".
"You can say this is a silent changing of the guards," Rahman says. "The President is doing what he is told by the military. You can say he was forced to be free. He was ordered to declare an emergency."
The story of how the two party leaders got themselves into this predicament is one in which it appears personal rivalry got the better of political sense.
On the surface, the issues between them in the run-up to elections seemed relatively minor.
Hasina's Awami League complained that election commissioners were biased, when its political ally, former dictator General Hossain Ershad, was barred from taking part in elections. But behind this, Rahman says, the BNP was trying to fix the elections.
"It wasn't just election engineering, it was election designing," he says. "It shouldn't have been an issue for the BNP. They were winning anyway. They must be crying now."
What the parties have achieved is to put the country back in the hands of the military. The "chief of the caretaker Government", effectively acting Prime Minister, is Fakruddin Ahmed.
"He has his allies in the World Bank, the United Nations and donor countries, but he is only one actor. You need a lot of force to back this Government, otherwise the political parties would overwhelm it," Rahman says.
All Ahmed's allies would have been powerless in the face of the well organised party machines, but for the military's backing. Only the Army can frighten the party cadres off the streets in Bangladesh and that means real power has now passed from the hands of Zia and Hasina to a new actor, who until now has been largely silent and invisible: the chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Moeen Ahmed.
Ahmed this week went so far as to insist "the Army has no intention of taking over". But elections have been postponed for at least three months, and few expect them to be held soon.
"I don't envisage an election," Rahman says.
And the "caretaker" Government is not just reforming the election process to avoid a repeat of last month's violence. It has implemented its own policies. At least 1000 hawkers have been cleared from the streets. And at least 3000 families ave been thrown on to the street as slums in Dhaka and Chittagong have been cleared.
A number of high-profile political leaders have been arrested in military-led raids and thrown into jail without charge. The streets of Dhaka may be calm, but in political circles there is now a climate of fear. At a fashionable party this week, 500 politicians were invited. Only 50 dared turn up. The press has been warned that the Government has the right to censor anything without warning.
"It's a coup, of course. It's a quasi-military government," says Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age, the only newspaper that has dared to criticise the state of emergency so far.
"The Awami League and the BNP were engaged in a cold power struggle, devoid of any political principles. But now the Government has suspended the fundamental human rights of all citizens."
But most Bangladeshis have welcomed the state of emergency. It has brought calm to streets that a month ago were witnessing ever-worsening violence and blockades that had brought the economy to a standstill.
As one Dhaka-based journalist put it: "You have to exercise your right to eat before you worry about your right to vote."
Strong arm of the law
Bangladesh has been ruled by a military-backed administration since January 11 when a state of emergency was declared and parliamentary elections scheduled for last month were cancelled.
All political activities are banned and basic rights suspended under the state of emergency.
At least nine former ministers have been arrested without charge and thrown into jail without a hearing as part of a so-called anti-corruption drive.
* Sheikh Hasina Wajed was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1996 to 2001. She has been the President of the Awami League political party since 1981. In August 1975, military officers toppled her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh, and murdered him and his family but she and a sister were overseas and survived.
* Begum Khaleda Zia was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996, the first woman in the country's history to hold that position, and then again from 2001 to 2006. She is the widow of assassinated President Ziaur Rahman, and leads his old party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.