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October 20, 2007

Eight years after Pervez Musharraf came to power in a coup, Pakistan is undergoing a widening spurt of violence, dramatically underscored by the bomb attack Thursday on the convoy of Benazir Bhutto hours after the former prime minister returned from exile. Mr. Musharraf's control of the country is slipping, with al-Qaida and its allies demanding an Islamist state while millions of urban dwellers have been agitating for a return to secular democracy.

Under pressure at home and abroad, Mr. Musharraf has been tentatively opening the door to the former civilian leadership. One ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, triumphantly returned from exile last month only to be unceremoniously booted out of the country again. Ms. Bhutto was allowed entry; perhaps 150,000 rapturous supporters greeted her in Karachi, in a mob scene that made it easy for a suicide bomber to strike.

The fact, though, is that there is no obvious leader waiting in the wings to guide Pakistan away from its troubles. Mr. Sharif was a sorry prime minister; under Ms. Bhutto, the government made a high art of swindling. A September poll, conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, found neither politician to have the support of even a third of urban Pakistanis; nor does Mr. Musharraf. Ms. Bhutto came out slightly ahead on the question of who would be the best person to lead Pakistan; since then, her willingness to deal with Mr. Musharraf has cut into her popularity. Perhaps Thursday night's bombing will lead Pakistanis to rally around her again.

Mr. Musharraf blamed al-Qaida for the bombing. Ms. Bhutto blamed intelligence officers. Considering that the security services have close ties to Islamist extremists, both may be right. We hope this outrage pushes Mr. Musharraf to the realization that the reinstitution of genuine democratic structures will bestow popular legitimacy on the government - and that that is the best way to fight the fanatics.

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