THE naming of a retired general, Liamine Zeroual, as Algeria's new ``president of state'' means negotiations with the country's Islamists will replace the two-year-old confrontation that has cost more than 3,500 Algerians their lives and moved this Mediterranean country to the brink of all-out civil war.
In assuming the country's top post Monday from the interim High State Council, General Zeroual made it clear that under him a serious dialogue will take precedence over the eradication strategy followed by the military-backed power since the country's Islamist leaders were jailed or driven underground in 1992.
Though it is still early to say where the negotiations will lead, Algeria's future points to a compromise between the country's two power bases, the Army and the Islamists - perhaps with the Army keeping control of defense and external affairs while the Islamists gain the right to mold the kind of society they want.
``What is certain is that neither of the two [powers] can win this war,'' says Remy Leveau, a noted Arab-world specialist at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. ``Both sides recognize this, so the only alternative is some accommodation.''
Still, the next few months of Army-Islamist negotiations, aimed at pulling Algeria back from the whirlpool of terrorist violence and economic collapse, will remain a period of danger and uncertainty.
It will be dangerous, first, for those who remain targets of the most extreme Islamic groups. These groups will seek to sabotage negotiations that stop short of an Islamic republic.
Proof of this came Tuesday in Algiers' white-washed Casbah, when a French journalist was gunned down in the known Islamist stronghold. The killing - just one day after Zeroual's swearing-in - raised to 27 the number of foreigners killed in Algeria's terrorist violence since September, and was immediately interpreted as a challenge to both the newly installed power and Islamists who accept dialogue.
The weakness of Algeria's so-called ``democratic'' political parties was clear after the aborted multiparty elections of December 1991. It became more obvious last month when those parties' refusal to join in a ``national conference of consensus'' failed to disrupt the more significant event of the week - budding, off-stage negotiations between ruling military officials and jailed leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Islamists' outlawed political party.
The shrinking fortunes of Algeria's pro-pluralism camp were symbolized by the assassination on Monday of the national secretary of the small Rally for Culture and Democracy party, one of the country's most outspoken advocates of a pluralist and secular political system. ``I think Algeria is lost for those of us who sought a democratic, tolerant, and yes, maybe even Western-inspired model,'' says one Algerian political scientist. ``We are now understanding how much of a minority we are.''
Despite the considerable power the Army still holds, Mr. Leveau says it may indeed be the Islamists who hold the upper hand in the negotiations. ``It will be just as much, if not more, the amnesty of the military that will be negotiated as anything else.''
The FIS has called for putting on trial all those behind the cancellation of elections in January 1992 - elections that first-round results in December 1991 revealed would give the FIS a wide majority. FIS leaders say the cancellation not only robbed them of power, but also led to the two years of bloodshed that followed.
Yet the Islamists' weaknesses - their relative disunity in the face of a still-monolithic military and their lack of experience in managing a complex and internationally dependent economy - mean they won't get Algeria easily, either.
Algeria may end up with ``the social-democratic version of Islamic rule,'' Leveau says. ``Just as for social-democrats there is the ideal - Marx - and then [there is] that which is possible, Algeria's Islamists are for the most part rationalists who will accept what is possible.''