ON the day Algerians expected to crown their position as the Arab world's first genuine multiparty democracy, an exiled war hero returned home to head an Army-backed council that will rule the country in the place of elected leaders.
Mohamed Boudiaf - little more than a vague historical figure for many Algerians - returned yesterday, the day the second round of national elections were to have taken place, to a country where political divisions were deepening.
For some Algerians, Mr. Boudiaf's assumption of power is tolerable, even welcomed, because it means they will not wake up today to a new parliament whose aim would be establishing an Islamic republic governed by traditional Islamic law.
For others, including Algeria's three largest political parties, the ironic timing accents their position that a legal electoral process has been cut short by nonelected powers, who have acted outside the bounds of the country's Constitution.
Algeria, already thrown off balance by the victory of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1990 municipal elections, was shaken to its foundations by an overwhelming FIS victory in the first round of Algeria's first multiparty national elections Dec. 26.
The Army forced President Chadli Bendjedid to resign when it became clear he was preparing to accept and work with a FIS-dominated parliament and ministerial government. Government sources and Algerian observers say the virulently anti-FIS military leadership refused to let key ministries fall into fundamentalists' hands, fearing it could push the country to civil war.
A variety of sectors of Algerian society - including some workers unions, women's rights organizations, student groups, and much of the new "independent" press - are rallying around the new council of state and the government of Prime Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, over which the council will preside.
But the three political parties that would have fared best in the aborted elections - the FIS, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), and the National Liberation Front (FLN) that has run the country since independence in 1962 - attacked Algeria's new central powers Wednesday and vowed to force a speedy return to an elected leadership. The three parties represent almost all of the candidates left standing for the runoff vote.
FIS leader Abdelkader Hashani called on Algerians at a press conference Wednesday to force out the illegal "regency," the five-member council of state named Tuesday, and proposed creation of an opposition parliament composed of candidates elected in the December vote.
But Mr. Hashani was careful to keep anything inflammatory out of his comments that might incite reaction in the streets by the mass of FIS supporters. Government sources continue to elaborate on the new government's intention to force a redefinition of Algeria's political party landscape, including an outright barring of all religious-oriented parties. FIS leaders believe any violence now among their followers would provide an excuse for the party's dissolution.
"Watch out for the enemy's provocations," Hashani told the party faithful, "and remain calm." Following the press conference, the FIS leader met with FLN general-secretary Abdelhamid Mehri to develop a common front.
FFS leader Hocine Ait Ahmed was being courted by the government to join an apparent effort to isolate the FIS and the FLN's traditional wing.
But the FFS, which won 25 seats in the first round of elections, demanded restoration of the electoral process. "We want to battle the FIS; we insist it must be done constitutionally, and that means through the ballot box," says Jamel Benseba, FFS secretary general for external affairs.
As untenable as the cancellation of elections may seem, the government believes its action is justified and has the support of a majority of Algerians.
More than 40 percent of eligible voters abstained in the elections' first round. That means that less than a quarter of the electorate had set Algeria on the road to an Islamic republic.
Then a huge march organized Jan. 2 in Algiers by the FFS to demonstrate the country's opposition to a FIS victory and to get out the second-round vote unwittingly played into the hands of leaders looking for public support to stop the FIS.
Yet while there has been no popular uprising opposing the government's actions and its intentions to put off either presidential or legislative elections until 1993, the degree of public support the government wants is not guaranteed.
"We need some rest from all the political battles so the country can concentrate on jobs and housing," says Abdelmalek Merik, an insurance agent who adds he is opposed to an FIS government. "But I think people have to feel close to their leaders, and I'm not sure that's possible with an appointed group."
Others are more disillusioned. "I paid almost a third of a month's pay to get home and vote in the first round, so I feel I've been robbed," says Ahmed Benzin. m not a FIS member, but I voted for the FIS candidate because he's honest and hardworking and those are two qualities Algeria needs."
The young paramedic-in-training says a FIS government wouldn't have forced any radical changes in Algeria, "but this new government is forcing us to accept leaders we did not choose. "They can do what they want," he says, "but I consider the man I helped elect my representative."