Shutting Sharif out will only strengthen the Islamists

There is a sense that the heat from Pakistan’s immediate crisis is evaporating. But not because the country is on course for democracy - more because President Musharraf has half-stitched together a formula for his own survival, and with it, for a kind of short-term stability.

Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister, who is now under an ambiguous form of detention in Saudi Arabia after his attempt to return last month lasted only a humiliating five hours, symbolises the democratic failings of the plan. His future may even depend on Benazir Bhutto, his one-time ally and now bitter rival - in which case it is a fair bet she will keep him out in the cold.

The other shadow over the plan is that of the religious parties, whose status may be strengthened by the flagrancy of Musharraf's self-preservation. Britain and the United States have given their blessing to Musharraf, and to Bhutto too if she sides with him. But the two could end up breathing more life into the Islamist cause, the last thing Pakistan needs.

Sharif’s younger brother, Shehbaz, who is acting leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz branch, says that Sharif “will go back to Pakistan before the parliamentary elections, which are expected in January. Sharif will stay in the holy city of Medina until the end of Ramadan, on October 11, and will then ask the Saudis to let him leave. He fully expects that he will be able to do so but many are less sure.

The astonishing, even comical speed with which Musharraf tricked Sharif into leaving - “smuggled him out”, as his brother puts it - depended on Saudi complicity. On landing in Islamabad, Sharif was told that he would be flying to Karachi for an appearance in court, and his aides duly prepared to visit him in jail. Only when he was airborne for an hour and a half did he discover that he was bound for Jeddah instead. Will the Saudis let him out? That depends partly on Musharraf - and it is hard to see why he would say yes. Sharif’s exit removed focus from the opposition ahead of Musharraf’s “reelection” this weekend, although that will be effectively a rubber stamp by the Musharraf majorities in the national and provincial assemblies.

Bhutto, who says that she will return to Pakistan on October 18, will presumably not meet her rival’s fate, in light of this week’s “amnesty” from Musharraf. She, too, could have much sway in allowing him back. But again, why would she? The Sharif camp had “no contact” with her now, Shehbaz said yesterday.

Britain wants Sharif to return to fight the elections, but failed to stop his deportation, and so may fail again. It views the conservative politician as the best chance of winning votes from the religious parties, which in the past won only 6 per cent of the vote, but have recently achieved more than double that rate. The pro-Western Musharraf and liberal Bhutto cannot achieve that feat.

But in supporting Musharraf and Bhutto, Britain and the US may have helped to fashion only a stopping point on the way to democracy. If Musharraf and Bhutto agree to share power, they may try to shut the door behind them. That would leave Sharif, and proper democracy, out in the cold, and would give the religious parties a powerful grievance around which to rally support.

Bronwen Maddox