THE government is in no mood to let PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif leave the country. The opposition leader was stopped and turned back by FIA officials at the Lahore airport, though a court order issued that day gave him one-time permission to travel abroad for medical treatment.

Although the court said Mr Sharif’s name should be removed from the ‘black list’ — which in itself is steeped in legal controversy — the PML-N said it appears his name has now been added to a new no-fly list. In a video clip of the episode at the airport, FIA officials told Mr Sharif that the ‘system had not been updated’ in accordance with the court order, hence travel was blocked. Later, accountability adviser Shahzad Akbar also tweeted the finer details of Mr Sharif’s name being off one list and not the other. The reason for preventing him from travelling, however, goes deeper than a small technicality.

Key government members have been up in arms about the court’s decision from the moment it was announced. They have criticised the court for a “hurried” decision and are considering an appeal once court activity resumes after Eid. The government’s reaction is unsurprising, given that their decision to allow former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to travel is a sore point, but their defiance of a judicial order can amount to contempt of court.

Why is the government that paranoid that Shehbaz Sharif will not return? After all, he is the opposition leader and party president, and has in the past returned to the country even after living in London for some months. The attitude of the government here is only strengthening the perception that it is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to hounding political rivals — a criticism opposition parties have levelled against it for the last two and a half years.

The hurdles in the way of the PML-N chief’s journey are by no means over. But if and when he does make it to London, his meeting with his elder brother will have serious implications for the future of the party. It will be the first time they will meet after Nawaz Sharif called out the security establishment for interfering in governance — a narrative at odds with Shehbaz Sharif’s less confrontational approach.

Editorial: Shehbaz Sharif has tough challenges ahead of him, from family dynamics to a fractured alliance

While every party has individuals who are not always fully on board, Shehbaz Sharif is more than a regular party member. He is seen as the de facto heir to the PML-N throne, a position held by Maryam Nawaz during his incarceration — and one that saw her gain popularity both within the party and with the voter. As Shehbaz Sharif acclimatises to the party’s changing dynamic, his meeting with Nawaz Sharif will no doubt set the tone for his future role. First, however, he must battle the bureaucratic hurdles the government will doggedly create to prevent him from travelling.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2021

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