SPRING winds hold the promise of magnificent days in Algiers. When they blow, they carry away the haze and stench of urban pollution, leaving behind a sight to see on the mountainsides: the uniform whiteness of the medina and the younger colonial French quarters, speckled in the wealthier reaches with the greens of pine, cedar, and eucalyptus, all tumbling into the azure blue the Mediterranean was meant to be. Such days have been a frequent blessing to the Algerian capital lately, but one cannot help noticing that they have not been enough to put smiles on the faces of people who fill the streets.
Prices are sky-high, "overcrowded" is insufficient to describe average living conditions, jobs are scarce. People are frustrated by their perception that a country with the natural wealth of Algeria cannot manage to live as contentedly as such poorer neighbors as Tunisia and Morocco. June legislative elections offer hope, but also give rise to worries over a possible Islamic fundamentalist victory, or Army intervention in the event of post-election chaos.
All that is enough to keep the hop from people's step. But now there is a new element in the national pessimism: the new world order as proposed by President Bush. Mostly it has the country's intellectuals and top officials worried, although even chatty cabbies and circumspect students bring it up.
To Algerians, Mr. Bush's "new world order" is simply a euphemism for "new world dictatorship:" in some cases benevolent, in other cases not, but dangerous because inevitably working in the interest of the world's remaining superpower. In a country where the United States-led war against Iraq was vehemently opposed, the new world order is considered a threat to developing nations that do not wish to abide meekly by American interests.
"We have many questions about this new world order," says a senior official here. "We see that when there is no one in a position to contradict the only superpower, it leads to dangerous situations." In this case, "dangerous situation" means the Gulf war. "Unfortunately," the official continues, "this 'new order' got under way with the destruction of two Arab countries."
Algerian Foreign Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali has made his country something of a spokesman for this point of view. He tells Arab and developing-nation leaders, the European press, and recently a group of European Parliament leaders gathered in Brussels, that the world's new "monopolarity" is in fact much more dangerous than the bipolarity of the cold-war period.
Yet Mr. Ghozali, whose country became a spokesman for the nonaligned movement in the 1970s, says Algeria's position is not nostalgia for the superpower standoff of the past.
"We don't regret or recommend a return to the past situation," says a senior official in the Foreign Ministry. "We do believe it is essential in international relations to have a counterweight."
That is why Ghozali has traveled to Europe, encouraging European Community leaders to hasten the development of a politically integrated Europe that can stand up to the US. It may also help explain why Algeria has snubbed French overtures since the Gulf war's end: Algerians deride France as a once-independent nation that obediently followed the US into battle.
"We think the US can play a positive role in this new order, if it is based on America's history of democracy and its values of human rights and the respect of law," the Foreign Ministry official says. "But we say an international order dominated by one power is dangerous, a threat to those who are weaker."
On the eve of Algeria's first pluralistic national elections since its 1962 independence, he adds, "It's like a country with no opposition. That is a situation we know something about."