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Algeria's last-chance president is sworn in: Robert Fisk in Zeralda observes an inauguration where pomp and protocol conceal the fear that only one man can save the country

IT WAS difficult to believe that the small, soberly dressed man with the quiffed white hair and bushy black eyebrows was Algeria's last hope. It was doubly difficult to comprehend why the diplomatic corps had not been invited, why there was no live television coverage, why the press corps had to be locked into the Palace of Nations for more than an hour after Liamine Zeroual marched out between the ranks of crimson-and-green-uniformed Spahi warriors with the title of President as well as General.

Even the location for this brief, if historic, ceremony - the Club des Pins country retreat of the old FLN nomenklatura, surrounded by hundreds of armed gendarmerie, soldiers and hooded policemen - was an object lesson in Algeria's modern history. It is only 18 months since Gen Zeroual's predecessor- but-one, old Mohamed Boudiaf, was assassinated by a member of the very same presidential protection service that was now guarding him. On that occasion, the murder had been televised.

And Gen Zeroual must have known what had just happened as he marched into the auditorium with that frozen smile yesterday morning. Three-and-a-half hours earlier, yet another politician had walked out of his front door in Algiers to be confronted by a man who, with deadly efficiency, cut his throat, left him dead upon the pavement and - like almost all Algeria's murderers - escaped. Rashid Tigzini, the national secretary of the Rassemblement pour Culture et Democratie - a minuscule right- wing party which has long called for an army takeover - was leaving his flat in Badjdera to drive to work at the ministry of public works when he came face to face with his assassin. There were no witnesses.

Gen Zeroual - or President Zeroual as we must now call him - made no mention of Tigzini's slaughter. Dressed in grey suit and dark tie, he paraded past a row of generals and admirals whose golden cross-swords and palm-leaf insignia twinkled under the television lights. Although the army is now firmly in power, everyone knows that this is the last chance for Algeria, the very last constitutional fling before the abyss. If the army fails, there is nothing else. So, in the minutes before President Zeroual's arrival, the military men had been chain-smoking. But now they were at attention, smiling obediently at the man who was at one and the same time general, minister of defence and head of state.

Algeria's sixth post-independence president sat down next to Ali Kafi, his civilian predecessor, and nodded meaningfully at the other four members of the 'High State Council' that had appointed him leader the day before. The smile flickered back to the generals and then to the flashing cameras, a confident, public smile that must have hidden more than a few thoughts: of Boudiaf's fate, perhaps, of the coup which overthrew Algeria's first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, in 1965, of Houari Boumedienne's death in office, of Chadli Bendjedid's resignation - forced upon him by the army after the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of the 1992 parliamentary elections.

Now he would have to negotiate with the FIS and its armed supporters who are staging an Islamic rising across Algeria - or, if negotiation failed, he would have to fight them. So we all listened in pin- dropping silence as Gen Zeroual placed his hand on the Koran to be sworn in as president and then promised, very pointedly, 'to find a way out of the country's crisis through dialogue'. There was a palpable sense of relief, cut short only by the General's own reminder that he had been designated President 'after the failure of all other methods' to solve the crisis.

Naturally enough, the last- chance President was applauded by hundreds of Algerians from the tiny, insignificant parties who attended last week's miserable 'national conference' but who have no political mandate. Needless to say, the FLN and the FIS were not invited to the installation. One could not help noticing, however, how many of the audience limped across the auditorium, walking with false limbs and crippled backs.

Smashed by French bullets and maimed by French mines more than 30 years ago, these were the old brigade, the original mujahedin who now face an even more savage war - unless the former artillery commander of Sidi Bel-Abbes, commanding officer of the Sixth Motorised Regiment at Tamanrasset, director of the Cherchell military academy, Minister of Defence and now President can save them.