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When Bhutto Goes Home

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Benazir Bhutto now finds herself in a bind of her own making. She's irrevocably back in Pakistan. But because of the dreadful bombing attack on her triumphal return procession, she's boxed in, reduced to begging the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf to grant her permission to travel by convoy in cars with tinted windows, and to use some of her own security to protect herself. Bhutto may see her family as a collection of martyrs for democracy: her father hanged by a military dictator, her brothers assassinated.

But she views herself as a survivor and an inheritor of the family's political mantle. She's quite intent on not being dead. She wants the reins of power back in her own two hands.

As of last night, the General had not responded to her security requests, which seemed simple enough. Conveniently, Bhutto was laid low with the flu in the days following the bombing, so that traveling (except to visit with families of the victims) was not at issue. But tomorrow, when she goes back to her hometown in Sindh province to pray at the grave of her father, the situation will get scary again. A month ago, as Bhutto sat in safety in her home in Dubai, she said that in contemplating her return, she was focusing on which campaign routes to take, which cities to visit, which villages to stop in along the way. In the wake of the bombing, her words - which seemed hopeful at the time -- take on a darker meaning: perhaps she was mapping her way around vulnerable spots (not so successfully, it turned out).

If one takes her statements at face value, Bhutto struck her bargain with Musharraf in order to bring an elected civilian government back to Pakistan, a government that would, though she does not make this explicit, have Benazir Bhutto at its head, waging war on any terrorist who resides on Pakistani soil. For many in Pakistan, however, the negotiations between Bhutto and Musharraf were arrangements made by two unsavory figures making an undemocratic deal useful to both. An agreement made between an allegedly corrupt autocrat and a military dictator didn't look much like the hopeful beginnings of democratic rule. In a Gallup poll released this week, 53 percent of Pakistanis still oppose the Musharraf-Bhutto deal, even in the wake of the bombing. Yet someone needed, and still needs, to find a way out of Pakistan's impasse. Bhutto told herself, and the world, that that's what she was doing.

Bhutto has an odd relationship with Musharraf. While permitting her return, he also warned her before her scheduled arrival on October 18th that there had been serious threats against her homecoming (as if she didn't already know it). Come back and save me, he as much as said to her in their negotiations. On second thought, don't come back, he as much as said to her as she was planning her return. With friends like this... Understandably, Bhutto refused to be menaced into an ignominious return by all the threats against her. She didn't want to arrive and the airport and dash into hidden security. She wanted both to greet her supporters and to demonstrate to Musharraf and the world that she was a force to be reckoned with, still, in Pakistan.

She did prove that point, but at a great price. Even though one might question Bhutto's dedication to democracy, the bombs directed against her are clearly also directed against all potential democratic debate. Those who are democratically motivated now must think more than twice before taking their campaigns to the streets.

The victim of repeated assassination attempts himself, Musharraf is in his own lock-box. Standing over it on the one side, with drawn swords, are the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan's intelligence service and army, who may have been involved in the attack on Bhutto. On the other side, impatient with and disgusted by Musharraf's brutality and his regime's clumsiness, is Pakistan's influential civil and political society, including important jurists. This is one reason for his frozen attitude now that Bhutto is back.

Will others -- perhaps more serious democrats than Bhutto, more sincere, but less well-known and less popular -- take the kind of risks Bhutto has seemed so far willing to take both with her own life and the lives of her supporters? One indisputable response is that the less well-known a politician is, the less popular, the less of a threat he or she poses -- and thus the more unlikely an attack from the suicide brigade becomes. It's only when you really might take power that they will rise up against you.