Only hours after he returned home Monday from seven years in exile, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested and deported to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Sharif had returned intending to challenge Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's troubled, US-backed military rule ahead of national elections due before Jan. 15. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the date for Pakistan’s planned elections.]
President Musharraf's handling of Sharif's return reveals the difficulty with which a key figure in the US war on terror must navigate the narrowing gap between keeping his tenuous hold on power and permitting a return to free elections.
Despite his overtures toward a power-sharing deal with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, it seems certain that Sharif's arrest and deportation will only further weaken Musharraf, whose popularity has been in free fall in recent months.
"It is remarkable how Sharif's return has completely unnerved Musharraf's government," says Talat Masood, a leading analyst and retired Army general. "The state of terrible insecurity it has been thrown into shows how very fragile the state has become."
"Sharif's arrest and deportation is a disastrous development and extremely bad for the future of Pakistan. It's a flagrant violation of the Supreme Court order and shows the state is simply not prepared to listen to the law. It invites anarchy in the country," says Mr. Masood, referring to the Supreme Court's recent decision to allow Sharif to return from exile.
Since Musharraf tried, and failed, to sack Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry earlier this year, the military leader has faced mounting and unprecedented opposition within Pakistan: from the judiciary, from Islamic radicals and from the mainstream parties that have long argued that it is unconstitutional for the president to also be Army chief.
"In the short term Sharif's arrest may help Musharraf; in the long term it won't," says Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst and former professor of Pakistan studies at Columbia University in New York.
"Sharif's supporters will go on building pressure. The opposition parties will go on agitating. Musharraf will face more criticism and his popularity will continue to decline. His problems are far from solved," says Dr. Rizvi.
Last week, the Supreme Court began hearing legal challenges, filed by Musharraf's opponents, to his dual role as president and Army chief.
Last month, the United States, which regards him as a key ally in the war against terrorism, forced him to back down from imposing a state of emergency.
His government is also under attack by militants who are believed to have masterminded last week's suicide bombings near the Army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi that killed 25 people, including staff of the main intelligence agency.
Amid all this, by Oct. 15, Musharraf will try to get reelected by the national and provincial assemblies.
Nawaz Sharif: An unlikely hero
Sharif, who led Pakistan twice in the 1990s, was toppled in a bloodless coup by Musharraf in 1999 and sentenced to prison on charges of corruption that had long dogged his leadership. But his sentence was commuted in 2000 in a deal brokered by the Saudi royal family. On August 23, Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that he could fly home.
Shortly after his plane touched down in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, after departing London on Sunday night, Sharif was arrested in the airport's VIP lounge over corruption and money laundering charges. A short while later, with tears in his eyes, he was unceremoniously plunked onto a plane to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Many believe Sharif's arrest and deportation will backfire on Musharraf.
"Sharif's popularity will surge now, because he will be seen as a symbol of resistance to Musharraf," says Rizvi.
Musharraf turned to Ms. Bhutto in the hope that a power-sharing deal would buy him some legitimacy and help him overcome constitutional hurdles to remaining in power.
As Bhutto entered talks with Musharraf, Sharif positioned himself as an independent defender of democracy who would never do business with a military leader. This, despite the fact that Sharif also rose to power with the support of a military ruler, General Zia ul-Huq.
Bhutto, meanwhile, needs Musharraf to drop the many pending corruption charges against her, allowing her to return and fight elections. She also wants Pakistani presidents stripped of the power to dismiss governments and for Musharraf to shed his Army uniform.
In return, her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) would help clear the way for him to run for reelection as president.
Such a deal has been strongly encouraged by the United States and other Western allies in the hope that it would bring stability to Pakistan and help in the fight against terrorism. But it is more likely, say analysts, that US support for talks between Bhutto and Musharraf will only bolster opposition to Musharraf.
This is partly due to amplified anti-American sentiments following Pakistan's cooperation with the US after 9/11. While Bhutto has courted American approval of a pact with Musharraf, Sharif has been cheered in Pakistan for his perceived independence.
'Out of the loop' under Musharraf
Masood, the analyst and retired Army general, says that opposition to Musharraf has become a more potent force in Pakistan than anti-Americanism.
"There's been a feeling against Musharraf that has been getting stronger for some time," he says. "People here, whether they are poor or middle class, complain they have no sense of participation in politics, that they feel completely out of the loop."
There was also, he added, some of "the old anti-incumbency factor at play" behind Musharraf's deep unpopularity.
Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, or PML-Q, which was stitched together from remnants of Sharif's party in 1999, has already suffered a raft of defections, and analysts say Sharif's treatment will spark more.
Observers also warn that anti-Musharraf demonstrations are likely to be met with considerable force.
On Sunday, police reportedly detained at least 2,000 members of his party in Pakistan, including its chairman. They blocked all roads into the airport using large vehicles and barbed wire, apparently to prevent the large welcome of which Sharif's party had boasted before his departure. Elsewhere in the city, they fired tear gas at Sharif supporters.
"Worryingly," says Masood, "it seems likely that the government will continue to use force to trample the opposition, as was evident before Sharif's arrival."