ALGIERS — LESS than a week into the allied coalition's air war against Iraq, the Algerian newspaper El Watan ran an interview with the United States ambassador to Algeria. To judge by the response, some readers saw the interview as a conversation with the devil himself. Insults were called in, and letters were sent by those vowing to become ex-readers.
But for Omar Belhouchet, the interview was a natural step for a "politically independent" paper playing its part in Algeria's march toward pluralism. Mr. Belhouchet, head of the nine-month-old El Watan, says Algerians "weren't accustomed to the work of sorting out different points of view, but that's part of becoming a democracy. And judging by the explosion of the press in this country," he adds, "the idea is taking hold."
A year ago, newsstands here served the same limited fare: the French-language El Moudjahid (the ruling party organ), a French-language government paper, and their Arab-language equivalents. Today, there are more than 110 dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. Some are just a few pages of political or philosophical musings; a few are specialty publications on humor, or women, or a political party; others are hefty, in-depth dailies.
The public's positive response to the new press is verifiable: Some newspapers are unavailable only an hour after they arrive on stands. "It's not unusual for someone who used to rely on El Moudjahid to buy two to three newspapers now," one kiosk operator says.
Some publications started with private money. But a good number were made possible by a novel program introduced last year by Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche to encourage development of an independent press.
In either case, journalists involved in the new press say they feel they are playing a part in bringing Algerians into the democratization process.
"We feel like we're an essential part of the democracy that is right now being born here," says Fouad Boughanim, editor in chief of Le Soir d'Algerie, which reached a circulation of 150,000 in seven months.
"When you see people rushing to pick up their newspapers, you realize those people are learning something irrepressible about becoming a democracy," says Zoubir Souissi, Le Soir's director.
Like El Watan and several others, Le Soir got its chance with Mr. Hamrouche's program, under which government-employed journalists could leave their jobs with a lump sum of two-years' salary that could be put toward setting up new publications.
Mr. Souissi, for example, had spent over 27 years with the official Algerian Press Service, but jumped at the chance to start a paper. The same was true of Belhouchet, formerly a senior writer with El Moudjahid.
Many journalists recall working, via strikes and other actions, against the system employing them. Now, in the private sector, they work for a system they see as integral to solving Algeria's political and economic problems.
"In the state press, there was a very clear message to be communicated says Omar Aourtilane, editor in chief of El Khabar, a six-month-old Arab-language daily. "Here we are much freer, and because of that, we are much more conscious of what we write and the effect it can have."
Members of the new press describe their establishment during the Gulf war as a "trial by fire." Some say the principles they tried to uphold, such as informing but not editorializing, will serve well during Algeria's first pluralistic national elections next month.
As a result, Souissi says, one can "discuss even the hottest topic with someone who is poles apart ... without the two of you killing each other."
Still, people realize the dangers to their fledgling press. Though editorial content is virtually uncensored, the printing process is in government hands. Mr. Boughanim says if Islamic fundamentalists win the elections, "that's the end of our experiment." To avoid this, some publications want to set up a private printing plant.
But the fact that the independent press has caught on so quickly is cited as proof that Algerians were ready for it and the pluralistic system it serves. "We may be just a few months old," Belhouchet says, "but people have already come to expect us. There's no putting us back in the bottle."