AT a crossroads in the center of this dilapidated seaport stands a smart signpost, directing traffic to an imposing edifice overlooking the Mediterranean. "Party Headquarters," it reads.Today, the sign is an anachronistic relic of single-party socialist rule in Algeria, where no less than 53 political parties have sprung up in the past two years to occupy 53 headquarters. But as this North African country looks forward to its first free parliamentary elections - scheduled for late this year or early 1992 - the path to democracy is proving a tortuous one. The changes underway here call into question more than a political system - they go to the heart of the nature of Algerian society.
An unbroken society "This is a society that is slowly and painfully finding itself," says Zouaoui Benamadi, editor of the weekly Algerie Actualite. "We have discovered that neither 30 years of socialism nor 150 years of colonialism before that have broken society's springs." Now, he says, Algerians must find a way to reshape their society, reconciling democratic practices with Algerian traditions. That search, opposition politicians and independent analysts say, is hindered by the reluctance of the former ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), to relinquish the power it has held since its guerrillas forced an end to French colonial rule in 1962. And prospects for a peaceful transition to democracy are dimmed by the wide popularity of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whose leaders openly say they will not tolerate political or cultural pluralism should they come to powe r. This battle between discredited advocates of state socialism, Islamic fundamentalists, and a slew of infant parties is also being waged during an economic crisis, as a temporary government tries market reforms on an impoverished populace. The difficulties were well illustrated during the last week of September, as the FLN deputies, who make up 95 percent of the national assembly, resisted the transitional government's efforts to reform the electoral law that will regulate the coming vote. Allegations of gerrymandering led the FIS to call for a strike and street demonstrations last June, which degenerated into riots that killed more than 100 people, and resulted in the postponement of parliamentary elections. The government's amendments met strong opposition from FLN deputies during the debate on the electoral reform measures. The debate has shown that the FLN "is determined to hang on, if not to a monopoly of power, at least to its hegemony," says Hocine Ait Ahmed, leader of the opposition Socialist Forces Front. The debate coincided with the lifting Sept. 29 of a four-month state of siege, imposed after the violence in June on the grounds that Algeria's emerging new order needed protection from public unrest. Opposition parties, especially the FIS, complained that the state of siege - banning almost all political activity - hamstrung them, and the FIS has declared that it will boycott the forthcoming elections unless the electoral law is to its liking and its leaders, jailed in June, are freed. Observers say it is improbable either condition will be fulfilled. "We want just laws that will allow the people a free choice and a cleansing of the political climate," says Rabah Kebbir, head of the FIS political commission. The FIS won 55 percent of the vote in June 1990 municipal elections, far outstripping the FLN. Mr. Kebbir says he is confident that "without any doubt, the FIS is the largest party in Algeria." But other opposition groups, which boycotted the 1990 election, contest that fundamentalist claim, and some political analysts have their doubts, too. "I have the impression that the Islamic movement has lost some of its strength," says Algiers University Sociologist Nadji Safir, "because the state stood up" by sending in the Army last June and imposing a state of siege. "The Islamists' success was due more to the weakness of the state than to their own force," he argues. That observation points directly to the fundamental problem dogging Algeria's hesitant steps toward democracy. For nearly 30 years, the ruling FLN was the state, and as the party has crumbled, it has left a dangerous political vacuum. "The professional class, the intellectual bourgeoisie, has been deliberately excluded from politics. They have no expertise and no political experience," says a Western diplomat here. "Only the FIS has proved able so far to speak to the masses."
No political class "The real problem we are facing is that there is no political class," worries Said Saadi, the 44-year-old leader of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), a social democratic, anti-fundamentalist party that has attracted considerable attention. "The FLN is totally discredited.... And people of my generation have not been able to express themselves politically." Still, the state of siege has offered nonreligious parties a breathing space after a period when the fundamentalists completely dominated society. Social life has at least partially returned to its traditionally relaxed attitudes. Women are not harassed for wearing trousers, and beaches near Algiers were crowded again this year, despite Muslim imams' edicts against the impropriety of swimsuits. At the same time, with all its top leaders in jail, the FIS has succumbed to internal divisions and proved unable to take important policy steps, say experts on fundamentalist affairs. Opposition rivals for the anti-FLN vote also hope to gain support from citizens disillusioned by FIS rule in municipalities where the fundamentalists have been running affairs for the past year or so. The FIS remains a powerful force, however, rooted in the country's 8,000 mosques, and it continues to feed on economic discontent. "Support for the FIS is as strong as ever, but quiet," says the Western diplomat. "Until the fundamental problems go away, or until someone else captures the popular imagination and looks capable of providing something better, the people are still fertile ground." Certainly, if the the FIS decides to boycott the elections, and persuades many to stay away from the polls, as it is threatening to do, "the process [of democratization] would lose much of its credibility," points out Mr. Safir. "The process makes sense only if it pulls everybody in." At this stage, with the elections due to be held in a few months time, nobody is prepared to predict the results. If Algeria emerges from its current travails successfully it will have transformed itself into the Arab world's first parliamentary democracy. But whatever sort of society develops, in this Arab country where everybody speaks French, it is likely to bear few similarities with its neighbors. "Algeria is different," says the Western diplomat. "Whatever compromise is reached between the FLN and the FIS will be unique."