AS the guerrilla warfare of Islamic extremists turns bolder and deadlier by the day, the Algerian government is poised to make a crucial choice that could determine whether this keystone Mediterranean country begins a return to stability or sinks deeper into chaos.
It will be a choice between dialogue and confrontation - and perhaps between a debilitating status quo and a break with the country's bankrupt political and economic past.
Against a backdrop of daily killings, regular neighborhood sweeps by the military, and scorched-earth campaigns by the Islamic guerrillas, the five-man, Army-backed High State Council (HCE) has called for a ``national conference'' on Jan. 25 to renew the country's leadership and chart a return to the aborted democratization process. The HCE has ruled the country since January 1992, when multiparty elections that the Islamists were set to win were canceled.
But before the conference, the HCE and a restricted circle of Army officers will decide one crucial question: how much dialogue to accept with the Islamists and their largely imprisoned or exiled leadership.
Right now, prospects for this national ``dialogue,'' and for a turning away from the violence that has left more than 3,000 Algerians dead, do not look good. (Algerian extremists' tactics, Page 3.)
Originally, the underground leadership of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) set certain conditions for discussions with the government. But once the ``rule book'' for the national conference began leaking out - including a refusal to include any group that links politics and religion - the FIS issued a violent communique in late December appearing to cut all bridges to the regime. It refused any discussion with the ``repressive and illegal power'' in place and warned other political parties against any action supporting the ``junta.''
Most of Algeria's so-called ``democratic'' opposition parties are refusing to take part in the conference anyway, calling it a ``trap'' to legitimize the current unelected government for as much as three more years. Moreover, leaders of those parties, as opposed as they may be to the Islamists' vision for Algeria, have concluded that any conference that fails to represent the 3 million voters who chose the FIS will hardly be ``national'' in scope.
``This risks being a conference with little more than the old FLN structure'' - the state party that ruled Algeria since independence in 1962 - says Abdel-Kader Djeghloul, an Algerian political scientist now working in Paris. ``It will be purely in the style of the single party.''
That eventuality might allow the conference to choose the HCE's successor, but it would not address what the government recognizes to be its central challenge: a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of Algerians. In a New Year's Day interview with French television, Prime Minister Redha Malek acknowledged that ``the state had lost the confidence of the people,'' but added: ``We are for a rupture'' with the past.
Just how much of a rupture may be the biggest subject of debate within the current regime. Some analysts, including Mr. Djeghloul, say one key debate now within the military hierarchy is over whether to break with the civilian leadership.
Part of the military argues that only a full divorce from the power structure of the old FLN regime can win back public confidence and save the country. The myriad corruption scandals involving high officials must be addressed, this group argues. But that would mean wrenching battles, jailings, even executions, and ``cleaning up'' within the military as well, plus a frankly military regime for a certain time.
On the economic front, Algeria is also mulling over a debt-restructuring plan laid down by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The plan would give the country some breathing space from its heavy repayment schedule with foreign creditors, to whom it pays about $9 billion a year - virtually the equivalent of its annual income from exports, primarily oil and gas.
But the debt-rescheduling would come at the price of a certain IMF tutelage over Algeria's economic affairs. Some Algerian economists argue that such a remedy would be too bitter for so nationalist a country as Algeria, which once considered itself the guiding light of the third world.
While the debate goes on, the country's repressive atmosphere worsens. Over the last 10 months, 18 prominent intellectuals have been killed, as have 24 foreigners. Schools and factories are being torched, while reports of ``disappearances'' from pro-FIS neighborhoods grow, along with claims of state-sanctioned torture.
On Jan. 3, the American human rights group Middle East Watch condemned both the extremists and the government, saying the regime ``has done little to distinguish itself from the FIS-led repression and human-rights violations the coupmakers claimed to have acted to prevent.''
The group says Algeria is ``now mired in a virtual civil war'' -
a pronouncement Djeghloul says is inaccurate, because the broader society is not divided. ``But neither are [the people] engaged in this battle,'' he adds. ``For now they are suffering what the Islamist guerrilla is inflicting, just as they are the repression of the state.''
Others are calling for decisive action to avoid eventual civil war. In its Jan. 2 editorial, the respected Algiers daily El Watan said that ``millions of Algerians are expecting that in this month of January, a blow will be delivered to the swarm that is eating away at Algeria and which each day pushes it closer to civil war.''