Between 'Dark Forces'
The 9-mm semiautomatic pistol is pulled furtively from the bottom of the leather briefcase, a source of security for its civilian owner in Algeria. His wife was a judge, the man explains, killed by "Islamic" terrorist gunmen outside their home in 1995.
"Now this is my only friend," says the man, a former government official, before thrusting his pistol back into his bag.
For those like him close to Algeria's ruling power - a shadowy group made up of military chiefs with President Liamine Zeroual, a retired general, at its helm - guns represent the only way to defeat terrorism.
But coming to grips with this insurgency has not been easy. Though it began as an Islamist protest in 1992, after the military annulled national elections that Islamists were set to win, it has turned into one of the most violent guerrilla conflicts in the world with a death toll of some 65,000.
Popular suspicion of the military - coupled with thousands of disappearances and human rights abuses at the hands of security forces - has made Algerians feel caught between two dark forces.
Recent signs point toward increasing government military action - with some success - and a gradual renewal of trust in the military. Such changes are easing the debate about how best to solve Algeria's crisis.
Some argue that Algeria's rulers are battling among themselves, that conciliateurs led by President Zeroual want to talk with Islamists and include them in a solution, while hard-line eradicateurs want to exterminate the violent guerrillas and keep Islamists outside the system.
"This analysis is very marketable. But the Army is the deep, real power in this country," says a well-respected Algerian newspaper columnist who asked not to be named. "Zeroual is their choice, their candidate, their spokesman."
Diplomats here say there are few signs of division within the military.
"You can't speak of a fissure or rifts of any serious scale," says a Western diplomat. "On key issues, Zeroual and his key generals see eye to eye. The idea that there are warring factions, or that tension has reached a dangerous point, is overstated."