ALGIERS — ON one of the Algerian capital's busiest central squares, a group of neighbors gathered in the tiny grocery store of Kamel Benhamouda is discussing the country's recent political travail, and the tone is hot.
The men say they all voted for the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the first round of legislative elections in December, and were expecting - after a universally anticipated victory of the FIS in runoff elections this week - the evolution of Algeria into an Islamic republic, applying strict Islamic law.
Now those elections, scheduled for Thursday, have been cancelled. After the resignation of President Chadli Benjedid Saturday night, power has been assumed by a High Security Council, including Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, several top ministers, and top Army officers.
The abrupt suspension of the electoral process yesterday was welcomed in some circles - virulently anti-FIS - as the only means of giving democratization a chance in Algeria.
Hocine Ait Ahmed, president of the Socialist Forces Front party and a pillar of Algeria's democratic movement, was not among these. On Sunday he said President Benjedid's resignation was a "coup dtat," and the constitutionally recognized electoral process ought to continue.
For other "democratic" Algerians, however, the departure of President Benjedid - in power since 1979 - represents a clear break with the past that will allow the country to develop new political and economic principles.
Yet some apart from the FIS condemn the move as more of the same dictatorial politics and a dangerous precedent for the country's democratic aspirations. Soft-gloved coup dtat
"We have just witnessed a soft-gloved coup dtat, and that is not something we can easily accept," says Lagda Adjazi, who laughingly describes himself as Mr. Benhamouda's local competition. "We all voted for the FIS, and we know from the first round of voting that that's what the Algerian people wanted. But because these people who call themselves democrats didn't like the results," adds Mr. Adjazi, "they decided to cancel. What does that say about democracy?"
That is just one of the questions that Algerians will be debating over coming months.
"The central issue in the political debate that will dominate Algeria over the next few months is the constitutionality of religious political parties," says Omar Belhouchet, director of El Watan, one of the most respected publication's of the capital's youthful independent press. "It won't be a calm debate, given the fact that one of those parties was on the verge of electoral victory and a strong majority in the national assembly."
The "calmness" of that debate will be largely decided by the FIS, which has shown in the past its ability to deliver masses to the streets. On Sunday, the party's provisional national leader, Abdelkader Hashani, called on Algerians to be "vigilant" and to "prepare to abort any plot aiming to deny them their right to choose" the society they desire.
That statement was made before Thursday's elections were cancelled, however. No new statement had filtered out of FIS party headquarters by yesterday afternoon, but few here expect the FIS to quietly accept what its supporters in the street are already calling a "theft."
At the same time, observers here say the party is deeply divided over how to respond to the cancellation, just as it was divided over whether to participate in the elections in the first place.
No one doubts that calls to action would be followed by many FIS supporters. "If the [FIS supreme council] tells us to shutter our shops and go on strike, we'll do it," says grocer Benhamouda.
While a portion of Algeria's unemployed, disenchanted youth awaits nothing more than the word to begin what it calls "a smashup," part of the party's leadership is reluctant to initiate what could be a repetition of the deadly riots of 1988.
It is generally believed that Benjedid was forced to resign by an Army that did not like the way he had managed the country's democratization process, which put Algeria on the verge of a FIS government. That same Army is making a statement by its presence in the capital's streets that it will not tolerate any unrest. Divided opposition
How the FIS addresses its own divisions will determine Algeria's stability over the coming weeks. A radical faction was opposed to participating in the elections and is likely to press the movement to follow different means for taking power. More moderate circles, led by Mr. Hashani, are unlikely to send their youthful base to what some observers fear would be "certain butchery." But they will also want to address their conviction that they were double-crossed by political leaders who insisted the electi ons' results would be respected.
In the meantime, the Army will be giving the man it has chosen to run the country, Mr. Ghozali, every opportunity to prove that the country is still under civil authority. Ghozali, former economics and foreign affairs minister before becoming prime minister last year, is respected internationally and has a reputation in Algeria for being removed from the ruling National Liberation Front and its financial scandals.
Many of the country's self-described "democratic forces" say this break with both an election process they considered to be fraudulent and the political atmosphere of graft symbolized for them by Benjedid is just what the country needs.
"This is the break with the methods of the past that can finally put Algeria on new footing," says Khalida Messaoudi, a women's activist who called for Benjedid's resignation last week.
Unlike Mr. Ait Ahmed, Mrs. Messaoudi does not condemn the rupture of the democratization process, but welcomes it as a means of giving Algeria the time to develop a strong democracy and stable republic.
Noting that the FIS lost 1.2 million votes between the June 1990 municipal vote and December's legislative vote, she says Algeria needs more time to perfect a process that is still young.
"The United States took a long time to develop its brand of democracy, France even more," she says. "Who's to say Algeria had to accomplish it in two years?"