GENEVA — MASSIVE debts, a collapsing economy, and official corruption have produced Algeria's worst crisis in 28 years. In a small villa 650 miles to the north in Geneva, a sturdy old revolutionary, one of the heroes of Algeria's war of independence, thinks he has a way to help.
``I know that I can get Algeria out of the mess it's in,'' says Ahmed Ben Bella. ``I offer a chance.''
As a young man, Mr. Ben Bella led Algeria into the eight-year war against France that inspired dozens of national liberation movements around the world. When the war ended, he took the reins of power as the country's first president. Now, as Algeria struggles against despair and political extremism, Ben Bella is poised to end his career where it started: at the heart of his country's history.
``Everything has created a rupture between the population and the government,'' says Ben Bella in a stern critique of the policies of current president Chadli Benjedid. ``The essential thing in our country now is to recreate confidence.''
In his first interview with an American newspaper in many years, Ben Bella calls for the creation of a ``committee of wise men'' to work with all Algerian factions to formulate a political program and to plan parliamentary elections:
``We need a democratic debate with all parties and people outside the parties to discuss a basic program and how to install democracy,'' he says.
A youthful 74-year old with a ready smile, Ben Bella says the committee should be made up of ``clean, respected, independent'' former revolutionaries, himself included.
The alternative will be a violent reaction against a government that remains in the grip of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and which has ignored reports of massive official corruption.
``Everybody can make mistakes, but we cannot forgive a corrupt political regime,'' says Ben Bella.
``Chadli must understand that he must do this,'' says Ben Bella of the committee he now proposes. ``The people are walking forward and there is no power that will stop them.''
Three months ago, President Benjedid gave permission for Ben Bella to return to Algeria. But realizing apparently that the former leader might prove more popular than anticipated - perhaps as a viable third force between the FLN and Muslim fundamentalists - the government has erected legal roadblocks.
If he does go back, Ben Bella insists, it will not be to run for president.
``I will not be a candidate,'' says Ben Bella. ``I can govern for a certain amount of time if there's a void; but [only] for a few months.''
Speaking from the villa above Lake Geneva which is headquarters of his own party, the Movement for a Democratic Algeria, Ben Bella says he takes a more sympathetic view of the country's Muslim fundamentalists, whose growing political strength was demonstrated in a massive political rally in Algiers last month.
``The fundamentalists have not fallen from the sky. They are a product of the situation,'' he says, explaining that Islam has provided an alternative for Algerians, who face a bleak economic future and are indignant over rampant corruption.
Ben Bella says that Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) has to be part of any dialogue on the country's future. But he remains opposed to an Islamic government or a reported alliance between the FIS and his own party.
``I prefer that young people go to the mosques than go to drugs. [But] religious people in power, I do not agree at all.''
Asked why revolutions like Algeria's that once captured the imagination of the world have foundered, Ben Bella launches into a critique of an international economic system which he says has kept poor nations dependent on the rich.
``The failure is not of Algeria but of the international environment in which small nations try to survive. We are not strong enough to find a solution.''
As for his views on state socialism, once an article of faith among third world leaders, the man who as president collectivized farms and nationalized industries concedes that it has not worked. But neither has capitalism, he says, adding that he now favors a mixed economy.
Ben Bella is one of three surviving members of the neuf historiques, or ``historic nine,'' the young leaders of the revolutionary committee that launched the Algerian revolt in 1954. His direct leadership ended when he was arrested by French officers in 1956.
His arrest aborted secret peace talks that could have ended the war in 1956, saving 600,000 Algerian lives, he says.
After heading up Algeria's first independent government he was deposed by an his own Army officers in 1965, and placed under house arrest in Algiers for 15 years. Following another 10 years in exile in Paris and Geneva, Ben Bella says he still has one dream:
``If I could return to my village to have coffee with everyone, it would be the most wonderful thing I could have.''