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For Algeria's youth, political reforms may be too little, too late. Rioters voice skepticism that proposed new measures will bring needed change

For many young Algerians, such as Rashid, an unemployed high school dropout from the working class district of Bab-el-Oued, the words ``revolution'' and ``socialism'' mean little. ``This country is run by des grosses t^etes [big heads],'' he says. ``They have kept power for themselves and left us with nothing. That's what socialism and revolution mean here.''

As with tens of thousands of youths in Algiers, the capital, and other towns, Rashid participated in last month's riots against high prices, unemployment, and the ruling party's monopoly of power. Burning and looting, the rioters attacked symbols of party authority: government offices, state banks and shops - even bus stops.

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``We want things to change because right now there is no future for us. The best thing to do is leave,'' he explains as he guides a visitor through the downtown streets of this Mediterranean port city. Groups of jobless young men - evidence of the country's 40 percent unemployment rate - sell cigarettes or chewing gum, or hang around on street corners and outside caf'es doing nothing.

More than a quarter of a century ago, the hard-line revolutionaries of socialist Algeria's ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) won a bloody seven-and-a-half-year struggle for independence from colonial France.

But today, the FLN - a one-party dictatorship whose principles once included liberty, equal opportunity, and a new democratic future - seems to have lost the confidence of the very people for whom the revolution was fought: the country's youth.

The overwhelming majority of Algerians (over two-thirds are under the age of 25) were born after the war. And most have become disillusioned with the socialist government, which has been unable to remedy a downward economic spiral begun by falling oil prices in 1985.

As an initial step toward broader political reform, Algerian President Chadli Benjedid held a popular referendum yesterday that could give him the necessary constitutional mandate to push through the political and economic changes the country wants.

While results of the referendum were not available at press time, Western diplomats believed the voters would firmly back Mr. Chadli, but that a portion of them - notably supporters of the unofficial Communist Party and members of the Muslim Brotherhood - would vote either blank or not at all to express dissent with the FLN's monopoly of power.

Despite the referendum, Chadli's efforts for more democracy within the party and more liberal economic policies may prove too late for Algeria's now impatient youth. Chadli is apparently aware of the need to move quickly and has ordered the next party congress to be moved ahead from December to Nov. 27.

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The demonstrations have already provoked an extraordinary debate about democracy and the country's future. ``The party knows that the people have learned that to riot will bring results, so they have been forced to open up,'' commented one Western European diplomat. This debate is particularly evident in the state-controlled press, which until a few weeks ago was best known for its rigid party rhetoric. Now, some newspapers are running front page criticism of the FLN.

Most Algerians acknowledge that the ``events,'' as last month's riots have come to be called, inspired these winds of change. ``The government realizes that it must now do something about our problems,'' said the owner of a small construction company near Miliana, 60 miles southwest of the capital.

For many young Algerians, who look toward the material advantages of Europe rather than to Africa or the Middle East for inspiration, it is less a matter of political ideology than one of ``enough is enough.'' For them, Algeria's socialist one-party system offers little hope for the future other than more austerity, joblessness, and high prices.

But recent events have also aroused an intense desire for democracy, particularly among intellectuals and professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Yet considerable skepticism remains about the chances of a complete political overhaul.

Chadli has said he does not envisage the creation of a multiparty system, but rather different political tendencies within the FLN. But Algeria's artists and professionals have made it clear that this is what they would like to see emerge.

The FLN's reluctance to encourage other parties is twofold, noted one senior Western European diplomat. ``At this stage, a multiparty system would obviously invite chaos,'' he said. ``The regime also knows it would lose disastrously in any free election.''

But some diplomats warn that if the FLN fails to acknowledge Algeria's growing thirst for political change, the country's Islamic organizations could eventually step in as an alternative.

For the moment, Islamic elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood are not considered very important, despite their efforts to exploit the riots.

One member of the Brotherhood, a railway worker, said he would refuse to vote in the referendum because the regime is not an egalitarian one. ``The FLN promised to create an Islamic state,'' he said. ``But we have no Islamic state, so why should we believe these people? Only under Islam are all people equal.''

Such ideas, noted one diplomat, might go far among young Algerians if the sources of their frustration are not resolved.

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