Last week, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif flew to Saudi Arabia on a plane sent to Pakistan by Riyadh. A few days later his brother, ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, followed. Unsurprisingly, the itinerary of the two Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leaders, both of whom currently face multiple cases of corruption against them in court, raised eyebrows in Pakistan. Observers and opponents alike alleged the PMLN was seeking Riyadh’s support—much like it had following the 1999 military coup led by Pervez Musharraf—to curry favor with the military and secure exile before they could be imprisoned. The reality might not be so cut and dried.
Pakistan is no stranger to its leaders going into exile—either by choice or under pressure from prevailing forces in the country. From Benazir Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif and, most recently, Pervez Musharraf, the country has rarely been kind to former leaders once they are out of power. The oddity of the current situation is that the PMLN is still ostensibly in power. “As Pakistanis we have every right to live in Pakistan and we are not seeking any asylum,” Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, told Newsweek recently. “Why should Nawaz Sharif seek asylum when his party is currently in power and his personal popularity is so prominent?”
Similarly, PMLN leader Pervaiz Rashid has questioned why this trip is proving so controversial. “This isn’t the first time Mian Sb [Nawaz] has traveled to Saudi Arabia,” he told Newsweek. “There is no deal in place. The PMLN is still popular among the masses and I fail to see why anyone would believe we are seeking any kind of exile.” Referring to earlier reports that Nawaz was going into exile in London—prompted by the ousted prime minister’s visits to his ailing wife—Rashid added that people often speculate about matters they know nothing about. “They were wrong then and they will be wrong now,” he said.
But the PMLN’s claims ring hollow taken in context with Pakistan’s history, a fact seized upon by an opposition eager to oust the democratically elected government. Leading the charge is cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The opposition party has already started claiming it will reject any ‘bailout’ from outside Pakistan, with its leaders telling local media that Nawaz will soon be ousted from his own party. The party’s beliefs are most clearly elucidated by the words of their own leader, posted on Twitter: “For how long will Pakistan have to suffer the constant humiliation wrought on it by the greedy Sharif brothers dashing abroad seeking help from foreign leaders to save the wealth they plundered from the nation? The Sharifs’ greed is becoming a national security threat for Pakistan.” Khan’s supporters are not far behind: in the past week alone, social media accounts linked with the PTI have posted edited photos featuring Nawaz and Saudi King Salman, and a fraudulent letter apparently banning Nawaz from seeking exile in Saudi Arabia.
But the PTI isn’t alone. Sensing the blood in the water, the PMLN’s political opposition has been rabidly accusing the Sharifs of underhanded tactics. Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed of the Awami Muslim League has claimed the Sharifs are trying to secure exile across the Middle East, but will find no takers. Similarly, the Pakistan Peoples Party’s Khursheed Shah, the opposition leader in the National Assembly, has told media he believes a ‘pardon’ is in the works. Firebrand preacher Tahirul Qadri has meanwhile threatened mass protests if Shahbaz Sharif does not resign from office over his alleged role in the deaths of 14 Pakistan Awami Tehreek workers in 2014. Qadri’s return to prominence has convinced many that the military is readying the ground for the government’s premature ouster—followed either by early elections or an interim government. Retired military officers appearing on various talkshows across local media have also worked to encourage this belief.
One former official of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, told Newsweek on condition of anonymity that he was convinced the Sharif’s were seeking a ‘National Reconciliation Ordinance’ with the military to secure their freedom. This appears to contradict previously reported statements from currently serving senior officials in the Pakistan Army.
Late last year, Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa appeared before the Senate and denied rumors that the military was attempting to oust the democratically elected government. He said the armed forces were dedicated to fulfilling their constitutional mandate and would work with the government to implement its policies. He also denied that the military had any role in encouraging anti-government demonstrations that have dogged the PMLN throughout its tenure, vowing to resign from his post if anyone could prove otherwise.
Whether the Sharifs’ traveled to Saudi Arabia for an alleged deal or on a personal trip, there is no denying that the PMLN has erred in its handling of the current media narrative. Nature abhors a vacuum and in the absence of any official statement on why the Sharif brothers visited Saudi Arabia on such short notice, analysts have been forced to offer their own theories—most of them alleging backroom deals between the Saudi royal family and Pakistan’s military to secure freedom for the Sharifs. One such report even claimed that Nasser Khan Janjua, Pakistan’s national security adviser, would serve as the intermediary to reach an agreement between Nawaz and the military, an allegation swiftly rejected by Maryam Nawaz. “This is merely propaganda against Nawaz Sharif, whose only guilt is to ask for his proof of his guilt,” she told Newsweek. “There is no deal taking place, as there is no need for it. We believe the people of Pakistan can fully understand the prevailing circumstances.”
But these statements ring hollow as Islamabad faces challenges on multiple fronts, both national and global. Militancy remains a potent threat, with Pakistan’s first terror attack of 2018 occurring within a few hours of the new year. The U.S., under President Trump, keeps threatening to cut off all aid. Ties with India and Afghanistan have hit new lows. The country needs stability to overcome these obstacles and unite as one nation. It is incumbent on Nawaz Sharif—and his brother—to clarify their positions as soon as they return to Pakistan. Any failure to do so only serves the interests of the forces they claim are working against the integrity of Pakistan.