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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

A leading opponent of Pakistan's president has set a date to return. President Pervez Musharraf has ruled this critical U.S. ally since a military coup in 1999. Now the prime minister he deposed is preparing to return from exile. His name is Nawaz Sharif, and he's returning even though he has no promise that he will be kept out of jail.

Mr. NAWAZ SHARIF (Former Prime Minister, Pakistan): If we can achieve our objectives by paying the price of going into the jail, well, that doesn't scare me. I think it'll - to the contrary, I think it will take this struggle forward. It will take the struggle faster than we all think.

INSKEEP: That's Nawaz Sharif in an interview earlier this year. He is one of two former Pakistani leaders who think their moment has come. They're playing roles in a story that involves democracy and dictatorship, and one of the world's largest Muslim countries, not to mention the war on terror.

Let's turn to reporter Graham Usher, who's in Islamabad. And Mr. Usher, there's - these are two leaders that Musharraf was easily able to keep in exile for years. How much pressure is he under now?

Mr. GRAHAM USHER (Freelance Journalist): He's under enormous pressure. The reason that these leaders are now exerting pressure on him is because of the new assertiveness of the Pakistani judiciary and its Supreme Court and also Pakistani civil society.

Earlier this year, President Musharraf tried to oust the Pakistan chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. He failed to do so. There were protests throughout Pakistan. And in July the Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Chaudhry had to be restored as chief justice. And he ruled that there was no obstruction to Nawaz Sharif returning to Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto does not have any ban preventing her, other than the fact of a series of corruption cases leveled against her when she was prime minister in the 1990s.

INSKEEP: Benazir Bhutto, of course, is the other Pakistani leader who wants to come back. She's been involved in talks with Musharraf. And can you clarify for us whether Musharraf has or has not given up one of his two powerful posts, one of them being president, the other being chief of staff of the army?

Mr. USHER: Well, there's no official statement to the effect that he has given up the position of army chief of staff. What Benazir Bhutto has said is that he has made that commitment to her. What is being said publicly is that Musharraf will act according to the constitution. Now according to the constitution, he has to give up the position of army chief of staff before the end of this year. What Benazir Bhutto wants is a public statement to that effect.

INSKEEP: Mr. Usher, is there any indication that the Pakistani people are clamoring for the return of these two particular leaders?

Mr. USHER: They are both prominent leaders. They head the two main political parties in Pakistan, and they have considerable constituencies, and they have the ability to mobilize the street. I think amongst Pakistani, generally, there is a good deal of cynicism, particularly with the negotiations apparently going on between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto.

They see this, basically, as a deal in which Musharraf continues to be president in exchange for Benazir Bhutto dropping criminal charges against her and coming back to contest elections and perhaps become prime minister for a third time.

Neither of these leaders are seen particularly fondly in terms of the way they have ruled; Musharraf because he is basically seen as the head of a military regime, and Bhutto because during her two terms in office as prime minister she led the country from bad to worse, particularly in the area of the economy.

With regards to Nawaz Sharif, there's also cynicism about him. He also led a pretty disastrous administration in the '90s, but he does have the support for what many see as his principled stand of not negotiating with President Musharraf and insisting that the army get out of Pakistani politics. The fact that he is returning due to a decision by the Supreme Court rather than as a result of a deal with Musharraf is also holding him in good stead.

INSKEEP: We've been talking with Graham Usher. He's a reporter in Islamabad, Pakistan. Thanks very much.

Mr. USHER: Thank you.

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