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Pakistani Opposition Leader Sharif Deported Upon Return

September 10, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Just moments after touching down in Islamabad at 8:45 this morning, the plane of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was surrounded by Pakistani police. Returning from a seven-year exile, Sharif had traveled from London to Pakistan to challenge President Pervez Musharraf’s military rule in upcoming elections.

In anticipation of Sharif’s arrival, Pakistani authorities arrested his supporters and set up road blocks on the way to the airport.

Sharif served twice as Pakistan’s premier. In 1999, he was ousted in a military coup led by Musharraf. A year later, he was exiled to Saudi Arabia. But in August, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled Sharif could return home, and the former prime minister began staging his political comeback from London.

He spoke to the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner last month.

NAWAZ SHARIF, Former Prime Minister of Pakistan: Pakistan was never meant for dictatorship or military rules. It was meant for democracy. So we’re not taking on any confrontation. If there is any act of confrontation from the other side, we’ve got to face it, because we want a democratic Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: And he anticipated what might happen on his return.

NAWAZ SHARIF: Musharraf certainly would like to arrest me. And he’s warning me. And he must have fabricated cases against me, bogus cases, as he has been doing in the past against me. This time around, I’m sure that he’ll be thinking on these lines again.

I think he wants to scare me. He wants to frighten me that I should not come back to Pakistan and play my role in the restoration of rule of law in Pakistan and should not play my role in the restoration of the constitution.

Keeping Sharif our of Pakistan

RAY SUAREZ: But when Sharif finally emerged from his plane today after a two-hour standoff with Pakistani authorities, they took him into custody and charged him with money laundering and corruption. Sharif was then ordered deported and was flown in another aircraft to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

In Islamabad, in neighboring Rawalpindi, clashes intensified after Sharif's deportation, with his supporters throwing stones and blocking roads.

For more on this, we turn to Steve Coll, the incoming president of the New America Foundation and staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. He served in South Asia for the Washington Post in the 1990s.

And just a few months ago, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that Nawaz Sharif had an inalienable right to return. What happened? How come he only spent four hours in the country?

STEVE COLL, Staff Writer, The New Yorker: Well, for most of the last 60 years, the Pakistan army has really run the country, and they didn't regard his right of return as inalienable. But I think mostly what we saw today was a fairly skillfully managed piece of political theater, in which Sharif succeeded by demonstrating his willingness to defy the authorities and return, but didn't in the end pay much of a price for that defiance. And Musharraf got a rival out of the country without having to take too draconian of a measure.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there consequences for Pervez Musharraf beyond getting rid of a pesky political rival?

STEVE COLL: There are. He still has failed to resolve the basic political question that hangs over Pakistan, which is, how are the next set of political arrangements going to be decided? And what role is he going to play? And today's events only reinforce the impression that his position is weakening and he doesn't have an answer to those crucial questions.

The clock is ticking. By next month, the next president of Pakistan must be selected. Musharraf intends to stand, but he has failed to construct a political coalition of the country that will support his re-election.

RAY SUAREZ: When Nawaz Sharif landed today, he was given a choice by a representative of the president: Go on trial or leave. And he chose to leave. What about those money laundering charges? Are they credible charges? Is there some reason to believe that, the last time around, Nawaz Sharif was a corrupt politician?

STEVE COLL: Well, the charges have never been evaluated in a courtroom, and the evidence has never been presented and debated. However, when Sharif went into exile in the first instance in the late 1990s, he left behind evidence of personal luxury and the accumulation of wealth that wasn't entirely consistent with the compensation of even a prime minister.

He does come from a business family, and so it's possible that he would present and persuade a court of alternative explanations. But he lived quite well, and a great deal of his wealth was hidden from the public until he was forced into exile.

The interest of Benazir Bhutto

RAY SUAREZ: Someone who must be watching all this with great interest is Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister who also is said to be returning to Pakistan. Where does this leave her?

STEVE COLL: Well, it probably strengthens her hand at least in the short term, in the sense that she and Sharif are rivals. And she has had more constructive, if as yet unsuccessful, negotiations with the army. Sharif's return to Jeddah and the lack of an obvious path for him to participate in Pakistani politics may create space for her to attempt to renew her negotiations with Musharraf over her own return.

RAY SUAREZ: But wasn't there a way that Sharif's return in tandem made her and the idea that Pakistan's politics were opening up more credible? Does this maybe in a way even weaken her by narrowing the spectrum of allowed opinion in Pakistan?

STEVE COLL: I think that's smart; I think that's about right. I mean, part of the problem is that Benazir Bhutto has trouble in her own party, which is broadly based in Pakistan. The reason she has trouble is for the reasons you suggest, which is that her negotiations with Musharraf tend to discredit her if they don't take place in the context of a broader democratic revival.

So in some tactical way, she benefits from Sharif's being sidelined. But in a strategic sense, it's really not clear how she or Musharraf is going to resolve this stalemate in the time available.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, she says she's definitely going back and will announce a date soon. When you refer to Sharif as "sidelined," is he just going to bide his time in Jeddah or maybe try to figure out another way back into Pakistan?

STEVE COLL: Well, the question facing him personally, and to some extent politically, as well, is whether he's prepared to go to jail, if the army continues to insist that he must if he returns to Pakistan. Today he apparently decided that he would rather reconsider his options from abroad than go directly to jail.

Now, Benazir Bhutto's calculation may be different. Her husband has been incarcerated for long periods of time during her own exile. Her own family has a storied history of dissent from prison, and it's possible that she'll take a different gamble than Sharif has done today.

But I think before then, she and the army will continue to negotiate over an accommodation that will create the possibility of a broader democratic transition this fall.

"Martial law in Pakistan"

RAY SUAREZ: The head of Nawaz Sharif's political party said today, for all practical purposes, there is now martial law in Pakistan, and Pervez Musharraf is the chief martial law administrator.

STEVE COLL: Well, it's an exaggeration, but it may be a forecast. The question that the army confronts on its side is, if it fails to achieve an accommodation with Benazir Bhutto or other civilian parties that it judges serves the army and perhaps Musharraf's personal interests satisfactorily, will it then impose emergency rule? That's the threat that Musharraf keeps hinting. He would like to draw a distinction between emergency rule and full martial law, but the practical consequences would be the same.

And, again, the clock is ticking here. The army itself is going to have to confront this choice probably within a month. And ultimately, both sides now are sort of driving at each other with the feet on the accelerators, and there's no sign that they're going to pause and negotiate a compromise.

RAY SUAREZ: Steve Coll, thanks for joining us.

STEVE COLL: Ray, good to be with you again.