Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nawaz Sharif: Saudi Arabia's Plan B for Pakistan?

Western scribes are perhaps overly enamored of the “Musharraf has his back against the wall and is being forced to make democratic concessions” narrative, which grows organically out of misrepresentation of Benazir Bhutto and the United States as the leader and sponsor, respectively, of an anti-Musharraf democratic vanguard.

Onthe contrary, events in recent days have shown that Bhutto is an ambitious, overly opportunistic, and by now perhaps fatally compromised American client, and the United States—as opposed to an apparent neo-con rump egging Bhutto and the Bush administration on—is an American patron committed to Musharraf but with a fatal and counterproductive desire to meddle in Pakistan’s internal politics.

The "democracy on the march" narrative has been applied to coverage of Musharraf’s trip to Saudi Arabia and Nawaz Sharif’s plans to return to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia.

The Western version is that Musharraf went to Saudi Arabia to try to convince the Saudis not to let Sharif return from exile and add to Musharraf’s electoral woes in Pakistan.

But, accustomed to the assumption that American plans and wishes direct Pakistan’s politics, it looks like we are missing the manifestation of Musharraf’s careful calculation and a guiding Saudi hand in Islamabad’s affairs.

And everything in the English language press in Pakistan and the Middle East indicates that the Anglo-American take on Pakistan’s politics is just plain wrong.

Typical is a Reuters report headlined Sharif due in Pakistan, Musharraf’s problems mount. It goes on to state:

Sharif's return, just in time to file nomination papers for a Jan. 8 parliamentary election, means the increasingly unpopular Musharraf will have to contend with two ex-premiers he has spent much of the last eight years trying to marginalise.

It makes a certain amount of sense on the surface, since Musharraf deposed Sharif in a coup and there is no love lost between them.

However, in contrast to the Reuters headline, the Pakistan Daily Times lede read:

* Insiders say Nawaz allowed to return in order to neutralise Benazir

Even before we turn to the regional coverage, the western coverage begged a fundamental question.

Why would Musharraf go to Saudi Arabia to try to convince the Saudis not to let Sharif come back?

A. Musharraf is in control of Pakistan’s borders. He doesn’t need to ask the Saudis to keep Sharif out. All he has to do is not let Sharif in.

B. Musharraf did just that on September 10. Sharif arrived on a plane from Saudi Arabia and Musharraf turned him around and sent him right back.

Another possible explanation—which I prefer—is that Musharraf has matters pretty well in hand, he went to Saudi Arabia to discuss Sharif’s return, and his trip represents a decline in Bhutto’s fortunes and a diminution of U.S. influence.

In fact, maybe the Saudis got impatient with America’s stumbling and destabilizing approach to the Pakistan problem, and stepped in to broker a deal between Musharraf and Sharif.

And the deal involves Sharif being allowed to return to Pakistan.

This aspect has received exhaustive coverage in the regional media.

Here’s a very interesting and circumstantial account, including hints of Islamic derring-do and secret meetings in Saudi mosques, from Asian News International:

Islamabad, Nov 22 : A top security official of the Musharraf regime has reached 'minimum understanding', who accompanied President Pervez Musharraf to Riyadh, stayed back and met former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the presence of Saudi royal family members. "The Saudis succeeded in creating a minimum understanding for peaceful coexistence between the two sides," well placed sources said. ...

Saudi Arabia's envoy in Pakistan, Ali Saeed Awadh Assiri, who played an important role, is also staying back in Jeddah. He came to the airport to see off Musharraf. ...

The General arrived in Jeddah late in the evening on Tuesday from Riyadh and proceeded straight to Mecca to perform Umrah with his brief entourage, he said. According to reports when he came back to the port city, Sharif, who lives in a posh area of the city, left for offering his Isha (night prayers) in a mosque in the vicinity with his male family members and some newsmen of Jeddah.

Sharif spent more than two hours in the mosque and in the meantime officials kept on trying to contact him, but he was not available, sources said. Musharraf spent less than 16 hours in Riyadh and left for Jeddah after talks with King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz.

Interestingly, Saudi Arabia's ambassadors to the United States Adel A. Al-Jubeir and to Pakistan Ali Saeed Awadh Assiri were present in the meetings with the King Abdullah. The presence of the Saudi envoy to the US was important since it indicated that the US would also be on board in the ongoing interaction between Sharif and the authorities in Pakistan, sources added.

Pakistan Daily Times added a few evocative and somewhat greasy details about the deal, while also including PML-N denials that any deal had happened:

Nawaz, following a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, met with senior Pakistani officials and close associates of President General Pervez Musharraf, and agreed that the Sharif family could return to Pakistan as long as the PML-N did not boycott the elections, PML-Q sources told Daily Times. They said the understanding also involves the restoration of some of Nawaz’s business interests in the country and his Model Town residence. ISI DG Gen Nadeem Taj and Brig (r) Niaz, a mutual “friend” of Gen Musharraf and Nawaz, mediated the negotiations in Jeddah. The sources said that Nawaz had also agreed not to destabilise Gen Musharraf’s “transition” to democracy or try to overthrow him.

In any case, Sharif is returning to Pakistan with more than a little Saudi political and material support:

The Saudi monarch is sending Sharif to Pakistan on a royal plane and has gifted him two bulletproof Mercedes cars and also lent him a helicopter for use during the elections.

According to early reports, Sharif wouldn’t personally run in the upcoming election but his party won’t boycott the January 8 parliamentary poll.

But Sharif is keeping Musharraf off-balance by returning hours before the deadline for filing election papers expires.

The Pakistan Daily Times stated:

“The Saudi king, Musharraf and Nawaz know what has been agreed to among them,” a PML-N leader said when asked about details of the “agreement” between President Musharraf and Nawaz. However, he said it would be clear in a few days. “November 26 is the last date for filing nomination papers. The cat will be out of the bag after the deadline for nomination papers ends,” he said.

We’ll see.

If Sharif’s party joins the elections the threat to the legitimacy of the elections and the vulnerability of Musharraf’s government by a boycott by Bhutto’s PPP is significantly diminished.

Bhutto’s insistence on a boycott has been weakening; if she faces the prospect of being supplanted by another opposition party that does participate in the elections, her principled resistance to joining the poll will probably evaporate.

Furthermore, with Sharif’s party competing, Musharraf will now have a convenient alternative to Bhutto when negotiating the post-election coalition between his PML-Q party and the two alternatives acceptable to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia—Bhutto’s PPP and Sharif’s PML-N.

There are even indications that it is not unthinkable for Musharraf to let Sharif personally stand for a seat and put himself in the running for the prime ministership, even if it means undercutting the electoral fortunes of Musharraf’s own party or even forcing a merger between the two.

An article entitled Panic in PML-Q, jubiliation in PML-N reported:

Alarm bells have started ringing in the PML-Q with its leadership fearing a major dent in the party as most ticket-holders might defect to the PML-N following former premier Nawaz Sharif’s return to the country today (Sunday) to participate in politics.
Insiders ... do not foresee any merger of the PML-Q and PML-N at this stage, they do predict a possible understanding between the two estranged leagues on the basis of seat adjustments to avoid split of the anti-Benazir vote.

Sharif, who has quite possibly noticed how Bhutto’s political standing has been compromised by her open embrace of a U.S. brokered deal with Musharraf, is ostentatiously declaring he has no deal with Musharraf.

Well, deal or no deal?

On November 23, the Pakistan media organization Dawn gave a run-down of the conflicting spin and indignant denials put on the rumored deal by the PML-N, the PML-Q, and the PPP entitled Deal shadow over Sharifs’ homecoming:

First, the PML-N:

[A spokesman for Sharif] denied that Gen Musharraf had allowed Nawaz to return home on the condition that he would not boycott the forthcoming elections.

On the contrary, Nadir said, President Musharraf tried to persuade King Abdullah against allowing Nawaz Sharif to go back home before the completion of the “10-year exile deal” he had signed with the Saudi authorities in 2000.

Then Musharraf’s PML-Q weighed in:

Although equally vague on the specifics, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the head of the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, told DAWN NEWS TV that if Mr Sharif returns to Pakistan before the elections, it would be a result of a “deal” with the Saudi government, and that his party would welcome the development. He said the party was prepared to take on all such challenges. “We are not afraid of him.”

Last and perhaps least, Bhutto’s PPP:

The reports also brought worries to members of the PPP, but some of them pointed out that perhaps Benazir Bhutto, sensing such an eventuality, had already made direct contacts with Mr Sharif to offset the impact of his return.

As to the presumed endgame for all this maneuvering, Dawn concluded:

CONSENSUS GOVT: There have also been suggestions that with Benazir Bhutto already supporting the idea of a government of national consensus, and Nawaz Sharif now softening his tone to talk about reconciliation, there is a possibility that fresh attempt could be made to assemble all major players around a negotiating table, leading to the forming of a consensus government to ensure a smooth transition to democracy.

According to analysts, Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan and pressure from the international community made the Saudi authorities review their decision to keep Nawaz Sharif in exile for another three years.

A plausible interpretation is that Benazir Bhutto relied excessively on U.S. support that didn’t materialize and overplayed her hand, alienating Musharraf and giving grounds for him to reject her as the democratic partner that the U.S. was clamoring for.

And America, by cynically acquiescing to Musharraf’s extra-judicial and unconstitutional second term as president, has effectively dealt itself out of whatever leverage it hoped to have in Pakistani politics.

A close reading of events implies that Musharraf has found in Sharif and Saudi Arabia a more more reliable partner and sympathetic patron than the combination of Bhutto and the United States.

Reporting on Sharif’s return, Pakistan’s Daily Times wrote:

“The understanding with Benazir was that she would return to Pakistan after the general elections but her early arrival and her brinkmanship made the president rethink his policy towards Nawaz,” a source close to the president said.

Now it’s up to Nawaz Sharif--and the Saudis.

It looks like Sharif is the Saudi’s—but not necessarily America’s--Plan B to keep Musharraf comfortably on top of Pakistan’s political heap.


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