ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Pervez Musharraf's summary deportation of a returning political rival yesterday is likely to galvanize the country's pro-democracy movement, but it also sharply heightens the danger that the Pakistani leader will use unrest as a pretext for declaring emergency rule or martial law, analysts said.
After spending less than four hours on the ground at Islamabad's international airport, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was bundled aboard a plane for Saudi Arabia, where he had been sent into exile seven years ago after Musharraf overthrew him in a coup.
Yesterday's developments were the latest in a months-long confrontation between pro-democracy activists and Musharraf. The general is considered a U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida, despite misgivings on Washington's part about the depth of his commitment to combating Islamic militancy.
Opposition parties and lawyers' groups reacted swiftly, calling for a general strike today, which could devolve into street clashes. Sharif's party also said it would petition the Supreme Court to hold Musharraf in contempt of its order that had authorized the former leader's return to Pakistan.
The deportation puts Musharraf on a collision course with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom Musharraf tried to dismiss this year on misconduct charges.
Suspicion that the Pakistani leader was attempting to purge the court of obstacles to his getting another presidential term set off months of street protests and calls for the general to step aside.
Now the chief justice is in position to preside over hearings on the deportation and other cases that could affect whether Musharraf can persuade outgoing legislators to grant him another presidential term and simultaneously keep his post as army chief of staff.
Pakistan does not have direct presidential elections.
Human-rights groups and officials from Sharif's party said they feared that Sharif's deportation, which followed the roundup of party leaders and supporters, could be the start of a wider crackdown on political opponents, the media and the judiciary.
"Musharraf has always had a contempt for the rule of law, but this takes it to a new level," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
At least a half-dozen senior leaders of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League were rounded up or placed under house arrest before dawn yesterday, family members said.
As many as 2,000 lower-level party activists were detained in the past few days, according to party officials. Police disputed that figure, alleging that several hundred "troublemakers" were arrested.
Sharif has emerged as an unlikely hero to the democratic cause: His two terms as prime minister in the 1990s were characterized by corruption and inefficiency.
But he has managed to harness anger at Musharraf more effectively than has Benazir Bhutto, a former president likewise attempting a comeback.
Analysts said the rough treatment of Sharif was probably meant as a warning to Bhutto, whose party reiterated yesterday that she would return to Pakistan, possibly in October, to contest parliamentary elections planned for later this year or in 2008. Like Sharif, Bhutto has corruption charges pending against her.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.