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ISLAMABAD — Pakistanis were taken aback last week when they unexpectedly heard that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in military custody since the country’s bloodless coup last year, suddenly left the country for exile in Saudi Arabia.

Many analysts were surprised by the deal brokered between the Saudi royal family and the regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Both Musharraf, who promised at the time of the coup to rid Pakistan of its “sham democracy,” and Sharif, who vowed never to bow before an unconstitutional leader, made significant concessions to reach such an agreement.

The unexpected turn of events has raised many questions over the future course of politics in Pakistan, a country that is still struggling to establish a stable democracy 53 years after its creation.

For the outside world, the stability of Pakistan and India is important in light of their troubled relationship and their nuclear capabilities, which combine to make South Asia one of the world’s most prominent nuclear flash points. Political instability in either country poses security concerns that go far beyond domestic political considerations.

With the exit of Sharif, Pakistan’s military rulers face two critical issues, both of which emerge from the public’s perception over where the country is heading.

First, the military regime’s promise to fight corruption in high places is certain to loose its credibility with Sharif’s departure. Musharraf has time and again spoken of the need to root out widespread corruption in Pakistan, a country where the black economy is so dominant that just over 1 percent of its 140 million people pays income tax.

Among the conditions of Sharif’s exile is that he has promised to surrender $8.3 million in assets to the Pakistani state to bring closure to allegations of corruption against him and other members of his family. Most Pakistanis, however, view this figure as a paltry sum given the fact that the Sharif family’s industrial empire is worth billions of dollars.

With Sharif’s departure, demands for similar leniency toward other politicians are bound to intensify. Given his deal with Sharif, can Musharraf convince Pakistanis that he is justified in keeping many other politicians in custody on charges of corruption? The likely answer is no.

The second issue confronting the country’s military rulers is largely about the country’s political future now that Pakistan’s two leading mainstream politicians have ended up in exile over corruption charges.

Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister whose government was sacked on allegations of corruption before Sharif became prime minister almost four years ago, is now in her second year in exile, dividing time between Dubai and travels in the West. She has been convicted in absentia by a Pakistani anticorruption court, sentenced to five years in prison and seven years of disqualification from running for political office.

With both Sharif and Bhutto now in exile, many Pakistanis wonder how long it will be before democracy is restored.

It may be difficult for Musharraf to sustain military rule even though the Supreme Court has given him until October 2002 to restore civilian rule. Signs of widening economic malaise are already obvious. Widespread uncertainty over Pakistan’s future is largely responsible for a sharp fall in new investments and economic stagnation.

Faced with an array of difficult issues, Musharraf has two choices. If he believes he can remain firmly in control of the country, he may choose to stay in power. But the questions that are bound to be raised by Sharif’s controversial exit makes this a difficult proposition.

The alternative choice is for the general to restore democracy earlier than the October 2002 deadline and give Pakistanis another opportunity to choose their own destiny. Pakistan’s military may feel frustrated about leaving its agenda unfinished, and it is certain that questions will be raised regarding Musharraf’s failure to clean up the political system. But Pakistan will be much more likely to regain stability once its people have an opportunity to choose their own destiny.

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