SITTING stony-faced at the back of a business-class cabin on an Etihad flight from London to the Pakistani city of Lahore, Nawaz Sharif waited patiently for his arrest on the evening of July 13th. His only sign of stress was a balled-up napkin in his right fist. Journalists ignored the pleas of cabin staff to stay in their seats. They clustered around the former prime minister of Pakistan and jabbered reports into smartphones held out on selfie-sticks. Mr Sharif sat still. To his left his 44-year-old daughter, Maryam, occasionally adjusted her white veil. At last around a dozen camouflaged paramilitary police in red berets boarded the plane. Those who reached Mr Sharif first paused by his seat. Supporters yelled from economy class. Mr Sharif slowly rose.
A week earlier Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-graft court, had sentenced Mr Sharif, in absentia, to ten years in prison for corruption in connection with the purchase of luxury apartments in London’s Park Lane by members of his family. It had also given a seven-year sentence to Maryam. Many thought he would stay in London, where his wife, Kulsoom, is on a ventilator after treatment for throat cancer. When he did decide to return, just 12 days before a general election, there was much speculation that his flight might be diverted to Islamabad to avoid possible attempts by supporters to prevent his arrest in Lahore, his hometown. Some even wondered whether he might be seized by Pakistani agents during his stopover in Abu Dhabi, where the airline is based. At the airport lounge there Mr Sharif himself hinted at dark forces behind an extra wait of one-and-a-half hours: “Think about who is behind this delay and why,” he said.
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But the arrest went smoothly, doubtless to the Pakistani authorities’ great relief. It may have helped that there had been an intense crackdown on Mr Sharif’s supporters in Lahore. Around 10,000 police were deployed across the city to prevent a column of tens of thousands of his fans from reaching the airport. Lorries and containers were used to cut off roads leading to it. The caretaker provincial government blocked access to the internet and mobile phone services. Almost 300 workers of Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the country’s ruling party, were jailed temporarily on flimsy public-order offences. After Mr Sharif disembarked, around fifty paramilitary police linked arms to form a human shield around a car that took him a short distance to another aircraft that flew him to the city of Rawalpindi, close to the capital, where he was deposited in jail.
Mr Sharif, 68, who retains control of the PML-N, says his sentencing was part of a military-backed conspiracy to deny his party a second term in office and to take revenge on him personally for trying to limit the army’s overweening influence after he began his third stint as prime minister in 2013. Reviewing his political career since the first time he was jailed, after his overthrow in a bloodless coup in 1999, Mr Sharif told The Economist on board the Etihad flight that his battle with the “establishment” was “heading towards its peak”. He questioned how credible the election would be with the government “taking such action against our people”.
Mr Sharif’s opponents hope that prison will limit his ability to influence politics. He may indeed find it hard to marshal his lieutenants from behind bars. A media blackout will frustrate any attempt to do so. On the day of Mr Sharif’s return, Pakistan’s media regulator warned media companies against airing footage of the return. A show about Mr Sharif’s return, anchored by one of Pakistan’s most prominent television presenters, Syed Talat Hussain, was cancelled. A veteran TV correspondent, Asma Shirazi, found her lengthy interview with Mr Sharif did not air. “This is worse than dictatorship,” she groaned while waiting in the business-class lounge of Abu Dhabi airport. Ms Shirazi recalled that Pervez Musharraf, the general who toppled Mr Sharif in 1999, had at least allowed journalists to cover the return from exile in 2007 of Benazir Bhutto, another powerful civilian leader feared by the army.
But voters are unlikely to forget Mr Sharif’s decision to sacrifice personal comfort. Murtaza Solangi, a television host, says the former prime minister’s influence within the PML-N will become stronger. Many observers expect the party will fail to retain its parliamentary majority in the election (many of its candidates have defected to the rival Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a party controlled by Imran Khan, a former cricketer who enjoys support within the army). But Mr Sharif told The Economist that his “struggle” would be “taken forward by my party and by my brother, Shahbaz.” The PML-N may take encouragement from polling conducted for the army suggesting that it is losing popularity in Punjab, a crucial province of which Lahore is the capital and where support for Mr Sharif is strongest.
Mr Sharif’s daughter, Maryam, may also still have a political future. Even just a year ago she was scorned by many people in Pakistan as little more than a bolshie Twitter-user. During her father’s recent saga her stature has risen. Alternately demur and—to quote Mr Hussain, the television presenter—as ferocious as “ten thousand horses” in defence of her father, she faces an additional ten-year ban from politics once she is freed. But, as Mr Sharif put it before leaving London: “These people did not even remember in their hate what stature daughters have in Pakistan.” (the late Ms Bhutto was one such: she went on to become prime minister after her father, a former prime minister, was hanged.) Sentenced for “abetment” and “non-co-operation with the court” in part on the basis of evidence that she had forged a document (her anachronistic use of Calibri font gave her away), Maryam Sharif may yet leave a large mark on Pakistan’s history.