SIX months ago the Algerian government responded to the worst rioting in the nation's history with promises of sweeping political and economic reform. Some local pundits dubbed it Algeria's ``second revolution.'' But with little seen yet from President Chadli Benjedid's good intentions, the respected weekly Alg'erie Actualit'e asks this unsettling question: ``In the eyes of public opinion, which was hoping for action and concrete results, is the [government's] grace period coming to an end?''
The query is being pondered in high government circles these days, as the dead weight of bureaucracy, state socialism, and entrenched interest have made it difficult to respond effectively to heightened public expectations. Some political liberalization is expected to take effect this summer, but economic reforms could take years to achieve.
For one week last October, bands of youths angered by joblessness, housing shortages, and high prices roamed the streets of Algiers attacking government offices and luxury stores. Mr. Benjedid responded by declaring a state of emergency and ordering the Army to restore calm.
The rioting, which left as many as 500 dead, now appears to have been a watershed in the country whose victory over French colonialism was once an inspiration to the third world.
Many observers worry that failure to implement reforms quickly could mean further unrest in this time bomb of a country where half of all workers are unemployed.
``People were accustomed to momentum. Now they're saying, `What's next?''' a journalist says. ``We're impatient and want to see the results of democracy.''
A Western diplomat in Algiers takes a less apocalyptic view. ``A repetition of the October events is not imminent,'' he says. ``But the social and political ferment unleashed by [the riots in] October is continuing full blast.''
The months since October have been punctuated by frequent strikes by teachers and other government workers, by rioting at soccer games, and by stepped-up political activity on the part of groups ranging from communists to conservative Muslim fundamentalists.
``People are simply not afraid to speak their minds and to resort to protest,'' the Western diplomat says. ``Whatever kept people from speaking out before has been greatly diminished.''
In November, Algerian voters approved changes leading to the separation of the state and the National Liberation Front (FLN), the single party that has dominated Algeria since independence in 1962.
``The October riots can be compared to an earthquake in politics,'' says a political analyst in Algiers. ``The first victim was the FLN, which was held responsible for all the problems of the Algerian people.''
A month later, Algerians reelected reform-minded Benjedid. Algerians went to the polls a third time in February to approve a new Constitution that opens the door to a degree of political pluralism unthinkable even two years ago.
Algerians now wait, with increasing impatience, as Benjedid and the country's parliament prepare laws to translate these principles into political reality:
Political parties. Since the Constitution enunciated the principle of free association, more than 20 groups have announced plans to form political parties. One law would make them legal, ending the FLN's 30-year monopoly.
Elections. A separate electoral law is expected to make it possible for the new parties to compete equitably in future elections.
Press. The government is likely to retain its monopoly of the radio and TV airwaves. But an information law is expected to make it possible for opposition parties and independents to publish newspapers, presumably free of government censorship.
The final language of the three enabling laws, expected to be approved by late summer, is likely to be scrutinized closely.
``We cannot accept the model of Tunisia,'' where highly publicized political reforms have failed to retrieve the country from the grip of one-party rule, notes the Algerian journalist. ``We don't want a democracie de fa,cade.''
Even if the reform laws measure up, Algeria's sagging economy will present the government with an even more serious crisis.
The Benjedid regime is under increasing pressure from Algeria's 50 percent unemployed, most of whom are under 35 and suffer from shortages of housing and consumer goods.
In the past, Algeria has been able to spend its way out of the demographic dilemma. Revenues from oil and natural gas exports were used to swell the civil service and various state-run companies.
But two years ago population growth surpassed economic growth. Analysts now note that as political pressures to expand the economy have grown, resources have shrunk, leaving Algeria heavily dependent on foreign aid for the first time since independence.
Algeria is also vulnerable as an economy moving away from state socialism. But the transition to a freer market, for which there are no surplus revenues to provide a cushion, will take years, not months. Meanwhile, the country will be vulnerable to social tensions and the appeal of Muslim fundamentalism.
``For 25 years we've been waiting for our share of independence,'' says one Algerian source. ``We're still waiting for the Algerian dream to happen.''