Pakistan: New Sharif Tensions

It was the Saudis who took in Nawaz Sharif and his family when the Pakistani prime minister was deposed by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in a bloodless coup eight years ago. It was the Saudis who came to the aid of Pakistan's embattled president last month by publicly agreeing to house Sharif, once again, following his deportation just a few hours after landing in Islamabad. And it is the Saudis who are now, unexpectedly, said to be pressing Musharraf for Sharif's return home ahead of the January elections.
 
According to highly placed Pakistani sources, earlier this month Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah called on Musharraf to allow Sharif back into Pakistan. A source, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said that the king had written to the Pakistani president urging him to permit Sharif's repatriation because of a ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court and in deference to "the wishes of the Pakistani people." NEWSWEEK's source said that Musharraf's response was to insist that Sharif stayed in Saudi Arabia but that his wife, Kulsoom, could return sooner.

Asked to comment, Tariq Azim Khan, Pakistan's state minister for information, told NEWSWEEK that Sharif would not be back despite foreign pressure--including from the European Union. "[Sharif] is not a political exile," says Khan, "he signed an agreement and is in Saudi Arabia on that basis." Khan said he had no knowledge of any letter from the Saudi king on Sharif's behalf and a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said he was unable to comment. However, Khawaja M. Asif, a close aide of Sharif's, told NEWSWEEK that the Saudi monarch had "committed to Sharif that if Benazir Bhutto were allowed to come back, they would not stop his return." According to Asif, the Saudis want to "wash their hands off this matter and are pressing Musharraf for Sharif's return.

At this stage, there is no clear indication about why the Saudis--lately vilified in Pakistan for agreeing to take Sharif back after his abortive return attempt--have changed their minds. One possibility: their concern about the show of public support for Bhutto--who is more secular than Sharif--on her return. "The Saudis have reacted to the personal advocacy of Sharif demanding a level playing field when he met the king after his deportation," says Parvez Hassan, a lawyer and political analyst who has worked with Sharif. Bhutto, another former premier and Sharif's political rival, ended eight years of self-exile last week with a historic homecoming in Karachi, where some 700,000 lined the streets to welcome her. Her arrival was marred by bombings that left 140 dead and more than 500 wounded, but Bhutto has remained feisty in the face of further death threats. She rejects government claims that the attackers were Al Qaeda-linked militants, instead blaming "elements" within the establishment for the attacks and the death threats that she has since received.

If Sharif does return, it could trip up Musharraf and Bhutto's power-sharing pas de deux. An August survey by the International Republican Institute found that Sharif was well ahead of both Musharraf and Bhutto in the polls. That factor, together with Saudi support and the Supreme Court ruling in his favor, could prompt Sharif to stage another comeback after Nov. 15 when seemingly neutral, nonpolitical governments take charge of Islamabad and the provinces. His return will likely herald large-scale defections to his quasi-Islamist party and undercut support for Bhutto's liberal Pakistan People's Party (PPP)--developments that will undermine Musharraf and Bhutto's careful political plans.
 
"PPP has shown itself as a very powerful political party in the last 10 days," says analyst Hassan. "Efforts are afoot to contain PPP's populism and [Sharif's] return will lead to a slide of opinion in his favor, not out of love for him but out of hatred for what the PPP stands for."

Syed Mansoor Hussain, a columnist for Pakistan's Daily Times, says that a strong and powerful lobby comprising those within the military regime is trying to control PPP populism. "This alliance [between Musharraf and Bhutto threatens the Islamist establishment," he says. "We're now in the familiar situation where irreconcilable Western and Wahhabi [the conservative form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia] wishes are tearing Pakistan in dangerous directions."

While Musharraf and Bhutto have not met face to face since their secret meeting in Abu Dhabi last July, they are expected to conclude power-sharing negotiations this week. The deal is expected to give Bhutto a say in naming the interim prime minister and the chief minister of her home province, Sindh. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the religious political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, is also expected to take part in these talks, but not Sharif's party.
 
Meanwhile, Musharraf and Bhutto continue to depend on each other for both their physical and political survival. Musharraf has survived at least four attempts on his life; Bhutto was lucky to escape last week's attack unharmed. In addition, the Supreme Court is yet to validate Musharraf's eligibility for re-election and may strike down the controversial amnesty law that facilitated Bhutto's return.
 
For most Pakistanis, however, the convoluted drama of the power play for Islamabad provides little comfort from the threat of rising militancy and the crush of inflation. "The militants are waiting at the gates, and we can't seem to get beyond who-gets-what in the latest power grab," says Fatima Bhutto, 25, daughter of Mir Murtaza Bhutto, Benazir's brother, who was gunned down outside his residence in Karachi in 1996. "The issue of both failed former prime ministers returning is a horrible distraction from the real issues."