ON Friday afternoons the narrow streets of Bab El Oued, the densely populated working-class quarter of the Algerian capital, are full to overflowing with young men who come to pray. Many wear the kamis, or long robe, of their Islamic faith, while others are in jeans. Motionless under the strong mid-day sun, the worshipers are silent as the voice of their imam wafts from loudspeakers.
In a country where political organizations other than the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) were banned until last year, the mosques have become a rallying point for growing numbers of Algerians, dissatisfied with the broken economy and political atrophy.
The fundamentalists want strict application of Islamic law, which opposing Algerians fear would mean a system as autocratic and economically inept as the one-party, state socialism many Algerians are trying to shed.
Concern about the consequences of growing support for fundamentalists has spread into neighboring North African countries and to Europe.
In Tunisia, leaders of banned Islamic parties are calling for a phase-out of the country's well-developed tourism industry; in Morocco last month fundamentalists, most of whose leaders are in prison, staged large demonstrations.
Just how strong support is for the Algerian fundamentalists will be tested next Tuesday in local elections - the first multiparty plebiscite since Algeria won its independence from France in 1962. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Algeria's principal Islamic party, is expected to emerge as one of the country's two strongest political forces, with the entrenched FLN of President Chadli Benjedid.
Yet many Algerians, whether simple observers or respected analysts, maintain that the attraction of the Islamic fundamentalists has likely peaked. Some observers charge that the FLN is cleverly whipping up fears of an Islamic party victory in hopes of holding onto power.
``The fundamentalists have passed the height of their political influence,'' says Rachid Mimouni, a noted Algerian writer and economics professor. ``In the past they were the only group that could openly criticize the regime, because they spoke from the mosques,'' he says. But now with a wide selection of opposition parties, ``people who are discontented - and that's 99.99 percent of Algerians,'' he says - ``realize they have more than one choice.''
But these same observers add that the Islamic movement's attraction will remain strong as long as the problems that have led to its recent rise - a disastrous economy and galloping population growth - do not improve.
``You see all the young men who have no job and spend the day tempted by trouble,'' says Rida Mokhtari, a student at Algiers Central University. ``For them, Islam is a refuge.''
Another student, who wears Western-style clothing and studies computer programming, says she will vote for the FIS because its leaders are ``loyal and honest.'' For 27 years, she says, ``the FLN has filled its own pockets by robbing the country and making us poor. Who but the FIS is strong enough to clean out the corruption and get the country moving again?''
An Arab-French amalgam - hitiste, or ``he who holds up the walls'' - has been coined here to describe the thousands of jobless young men who spend their day idly leaning against a wall. Officially unemployment tops 20 percent, but among the young it is much higher. In a country where two-thirds of the population is under 25, and the population continues to grow 3 percent annually, despair for the future is palpable.
With national productivity regressing, collectivized agriculture in shambles, and overcrowding rampant in the cities that were to be a modern Algeria's showcase, Islam has appeared to many as the only way out.
But some observers here insist that the FIS is speaking with a moderate voice only until it takes power.
``I got to know the fundamentalists while in prison,'' says Said Saadi, a prominent political leader now heading RCD, a political party that supports democratic reform including full separation of church and state. ``If the FIS comes to power, the next day it will be the sharia,'' or application of Islamic law.
Not everyone agrees, however.
``Algeria is Sunni Islam, which is quite different from the Shiite branch of Iran,'' says Abdelkader Djeghloul, a sociologist and historian. Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah ``Khomeini benefited from a pyramid-like structure that allowed him to give orders to his mullahs throughout the country. It's too quickly forgotten that the Islamic movement in Algeria is more complex,'' he says. ``The FIS itself is divided, and there are other Islamic organizations that don't accept the FIS. Our traditions don't allow a monolithic party of the church.''
Others say the major threat of the fundamentalists is that they could repeat mistakes akin to those of the past, when revolutionary leaders without experience imposed a collectivist economic system.
``The ideology they preach is not capable of running a modern country and leading the economy out of catastrophe,'' says economist Mimouni. ``More people are realizing that, but it's still attractive when they simply say they will end unemployment and make the country productive.''
The fundamentalists see themselves as the only group with the moral authority to inspire an Islamic population that has lost confidence in its leaders and the future.
``For a long time now the Algerian people have been on strike, they don't have the inspiration to be productive,'' says Abassi Madani, spokesman for the FIS. ``Our main task is to lead the people out of this confidence crisis.''
In a clear reference to the corruption charges surrounding the FLN, Mr. Madani says ``unlike others, we are not going to sow seeds so we ourselves eat, but so that others eat.'' Among the ``seeds'' he would sow are lower taxes, military spending cuts, and more private initiative.
The question remains of how far the fundamentalists would go in imposing Islamic law if they were to take power. Madani says a secular government is not possible in Islamic Algeria, but a ruling FIS would be tolerant. Women would not be required to wear veils, he says. ``You improve a culture through education,'' he says. ``You raise the human being free but armed with values.''
Some critics maintain Madani's moderate tone is tailored to calm a population fearful of losing Western freedoms. Critics claim FIS leaders rely on grassroots supporters, most of whom want changes reflecting Koranic law.
``We will close the discos, because in Islam we do not sing and we do not dance,'' says Djamel Zekhrouf, a spice merchant at Algiers market and a FIS supporter. ``That is not imposing anything, because we are an Islamic country. But if they stay open, that is imposing someone else's beliefs on us.''