The only winners of the Nawaz Sharif episode are the Saudis
As the report in Dawn put it, the Musharraf regime used force and guile to send Nawaz Sharif bouncing back to Hotel Saudifornia. But as perspicacious commentators have it, no one in Pakistan actually won this round.
Gen Musharraf may have purchased some breathing room by expelling Nawaz Sharif. But by deciding to violate a Supreme Court decision, he has opened the doors for a new confrontation with the court and Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. If the court decides to confront him on this—and this will be the acid test of its newfound independence—he might well have to declare martial law. That too is unlikely to work—because the America won’t be able to cover him beyond that point. But also because the people might come out on the streets.
Nawaz Sharif may have scored a moral victory. But that’s meaningless to him unless he’s able to get out of Saudi Arabia in time for elections. And the Saudis didn’t go through all this trouble only to let him go next month. Indeed, they might even have had the United States’ tacit backing in keeping him out of the fray for now. For he’s spoiling Washington’s desire to have a Musharraf-Benazir combo in power in Pakistan. (In any case, even after planning so much, he chose the wrong day to return to Pakistan. The American media was busy covering the Petraeus/Crocker testimony to pay any attention to his being manhandled)
Benazir Bhutto clearly believes that the United States is more powerful than popular opinion in Pakistan, which is why she still remains engaged in negotiations with Musharraf, over what they call ‘free and fair’ elections. What she gains by Nawaz Sharif’s expulsion is more than made up by what she loses in terms of public credibility.
The United States—some of whose top diplomats are in Islamabad ‘on unrelated business‘—has further sunk in the eyes of the Pakistani people. And in the absence of Nawaz Sharif, the only anti-American political formation is that of the Islamists. And if the Musharraf-Benazir combo comes unstuck, before or after elections, the United States will be staring down at another crisis.
So who won? Why, the Saudis, of course. By demonstrating their will and capability to enforce ‘contracts’ they guaranteed, their reputation as international mediators in the Islamic world has gained more credibility. Even as Pakistanis smart under the embarrassment of having foreign countries decide on the fate of their state, they are unlikely to develop an animus against Saudi Arabia. An important question is whether the Pakistani Supreme Court too will bow its head to Saudi Arabia and decide not to order the Musharraf regime to bring Nawaz Sharif back.