LATE last March, a tremor surged through Algeria's population when the then-minister of the interior publicly called for a general mobilization of Army reserves to help in the government's battle against radical Islamist-backed terrorists.
But two months later, President Liamine Zeroual and the government of recently named Prime Minister Mokdad Sifi have dropped the idea of a general mobilization, sources close to the government say. That decision reflects in part the slightly better position of the government.
Some of the regions virtually given up to Islamist control have been regained, while an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to restructure the country's smothering debt should allow the government to buy foodstuffs and other necessities.
The prospect of a civilian mobilization dashed many Algerians' meager hopes for a return to better times in a country battered by more than 4,000 deaths in nearly two years of civil strife. But the recent news has boosted public morale.
Yet even as the local press reports the government's decision to drop the reserves call-up, analysts caution that it should not be interpreted as a sign of returning stability. ``The fact that the mobilization idea hasn't been retained means simply that those forces recommending an exclusively military response to the Islamists have lost their fight,'' says Abdelkader Djeghloul, an Algerian political scientist based in Paris.
That means the government will continue behind-the-scenes dialogue begun with the Islamists when General Zeroual was brought out of retirement in January to assume the presidency, Mr. Djeghloul says. But the country during this time ``will remain very unstable,'' he adds.
After national elections were canceled in January 1992, Algeria shifted from a rare Arab-world example of nascent multiparty democracy to the theater of a violent Islamist uprising. First-round voting virtually guaranteed the principal Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a crushing parliamentary majority. But after the election cancellation, the FIS was banned and its leaders were either jailed or exiled. Thousands of supporters went underground.
After months of violence, the government has realized that repression of the Islamists will not be enough to reestablish stability, observers say. But at the same time, the government does not want to negotiate from a position of weakness, they add, so a dual approach of repression and dialogue has been adopted.
Yet as Zeroual continues his ``dialogue'' with jailed Islamist leaders, public skepticism appears to be mounting. If it is to negotiate a sharing of power, then people are saying there was no reason to cancel elections and deny the FIS power in the first place, says Zoubir Souissi, director of an Algiers French-language daily, Le Soir d'Algerie.
RECENT street marches show contrasting public opinion, he says: On the one hand, successful demonstrations by Algerian women and the Berber community against an accommodation of Islamist demands for a society based on strict Islamic law; on the other, failed marches around the country last week in favor of ``dialogue'' with the Islamists.
Noting that the latter were largely organized by the National Liberation Front (FLN) - the former single-party power that ruled the country for three decades after its 1962 independence - analysts say the failure testifies to the public's repudiation of the old power. ``If the FLN had organized a march for democracy, it would have been just as broadly shunned,'' Djeghloul says.
``What Algerians want above all is more of the modernity they have already tasted'' in the more prosperous 1980s, he adds. So even as the Army-backed power and the Islamists pursue their deadly standoff where neither side can win, Djeghloul says, the key to Algeria regaining some stability will be in the economy.
A debt-restructuring accord with the IMF, agreed to in principle earlier this year, opens the way for Algeria to cut up to several billion dollars off its annual debt-servicing bill of $9.5 billion. Still, Djeghloul sees little prospect of the country getting the economic relief it needs until a pipeline carrying Algerian natural gas to Europe opens after 1995.
Souissi gives a telling example of the difference an economic upturn in a country of 25 percent unemployment could make.
``We [at the paper] hired several young jobless men from the neighborhood whom we knew to be FIS sympathizers and possibly even tempted by the terrorism route,'' he says. ``Now they drive trucks or do other small jobs for us that give them some hope in the future, and their former sympathies are forgotten,'' he adds. ``They tell us, `We thought it was the only solution for us.' ''