But Sharif also returns to a country frozen by political restrictions and roiled by violence. His political party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) reported that police detained more than 1,600 of its members before Sharif's plane landed in Lahore. Meanwhile, two suicide bombings killed dozens of security and intelligence personnel in the garrison city of Rawalpindi a day before Sharif's arrival, adding to the continued assault on Musharraf from all sides, despite the installment of de facto martial law earlier this month.
Sharif arrives just as Musharraf, the Army general who deposed him in 1999, faces the lowest point of his eight-year presidency. He is swamped by challenges to his rule from the judiciary, the media, civil society, political activists, and Islamist militants. He has promised to quit his Army post and take an oath as a civilian president within days.
A careful deal with Saudi Arabia
Sharif's return comes on the heels of a visit last week by Musharraf to Saudi Arabia, where Sharif had lived in exile as a guest of the Saudi royal family since 2000. All the parties involved – Musharraf, the Saudi royals, and Sharif and his brother – were tight-lipped about the topics discussed during the visit. But Sharif's arrival days later aboard a Saudi king's plane in Lahore, where he was met by a bulletproof Mercedes gifted by the Saudi family, suggests that the matter of Sharif's return to Pakistan had been discussed.
Sharif's exile had been part of a political settlement, in which he promised to leave the country and not participate in political activities for 10 years. Musharraf toppled Sharif's government in a bloodless military coup in 1999 and filed charges of treason and hijacking against him.
Sharif had attempted to return to the country in September, bucking his Saudi hosts' advice to remain in exile. But Musharraf had Sharif deported before the former premier could exit the airport.
Sharif's close Islamist connections
Sharif's strong ties to Islamist political parties have attracted suspicion from some Western governments that have traditionally counted Musharraf as an ally in the US-led war on terrorism.
Sharif first rose to prominence when he was appointed as chief minister of Punjab in 1985 under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, the military ruler who initiated the first wave of political Islam in the country. Sharif became prime minister for the first time in 1990, winning the election in an alliance that included Jamat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the country.