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Sharif, Bhutto in for trouble

The Attock Jail is getting ready to host celebrity prisoners: former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, reports Kamal Siddiqi.

world Updated: Sep 09, 2007 02:44 IST

The Attock Jail is getting ready to host celebrity prisoners: former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif. Like old times? Maybe not.

The exiled ex-PM’s party has said any arrest of its leaders would be resisted. “We cannot disclose the plan at this stage. We will resist any move to arrest the Sharif brothers,” said Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, acting president, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

Another former PM, Benazir Bhutto, is headed home and her party is equally prepared. “If he (President Pervez Musharraf) uses force, we fear there can be bloodshed,” says Fozia Wahab, a Pakistan People’s Party MP.

The Sharif brothers are expected to return next week, possibly on Monday. The government has said they will be arrested on arrival. In a sign of what lies ahead, a special anti-terrorist court on Friday issued a warrant against Shahbaz Sharif.

There is no time schedule yet for Bhutto’s return. She has been in talks with General Musharraf — directly and through aides — negotiating details of a deal that will allow her to return.

“I don’t know what will happen once I return to Pakistan,” she said in London earlier this week. “I can be jailed or detained or arrested.” Her party will, of course, resist and there may be widespread violence.

Pakistan is on the boil. First came Musharraf’s “sacking” of the SC chief justice, then the Lal Masjid dustup with fundamentalists and then the drmatic re-instatement of the chief justice. And now the returning exiles. This is also an election year and Musharraf is expected to seek another term as president. Will the Supreme Court let him? Will he retain both his uniform and the presidency? And what will Sharif and Bhutto do?

It’s becoming increasingly clear to everyone here that the two former PMs want to return and will, soon. In fact, PPP activists are now discussing where Bhutto will stage her first post-return rally. Sharif’s return is likely to affect the political fortunes of the PML-Q, which is headed by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a former Sharif supporter and now with Musharraf. Musharraf needs Shujaat’s support to be re-elected as president through parliament later this month.

As things stand, the choices before Musharraf are limited. If he is able to come to some agreement with Bhutto, he can count on her party’s support after general election. But Bhutto is not going to commit her support for free. She is insisting that Musharraf resign as army chief. This will result in a weaker president, a prospect that most politicians are comfortable with. Just like Bhutto and Sharif, Musharraf is battling for power.