Algeria's liberals fight fires of fundamentalism: Pride in a hard-won freedom may check the excesses that threaten to harm the country, writes Robert Fisk from Algiers

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'I WENT to a relative's funeral in Oran in December - he died a natural death - but at the funeral, the sheikh mentioned an Algerian woman who had just been murdered along with her Belgian husband.' There was silence at the dinner table; this was not a moment to rattle our knives and forks over the hot spicy peppers and tomatoes. Our host was speaking in the impeccable French of the Algerian middle-classes, providing one of those little windows through which we might glimpse an unhappy reality of Algerian life. 'The sheikh didn't talk about the murdered Belgian - he ignored him. But of the woman, he said: 'If she hadn't married a foreigner, this wouldn't have happened to her'.'

He paused for the horror of this statement to sink in. 'How can we reason with people like this? How can we let people like this sheikh come to power? A lot of our problem here was our education system. The FLN (National Liberation Front) taught children that history began in 1962, after our war of independence. They were not taught about Abdul-Kader (the Algerian warrior who fought the French colonists after 1832). But the people rejected the FLN and their version of history. So the only thing that was true to them was the Koran - which gave the fundamentalist leaders increased power. They were like the sheikh in the Oran mosque; they could take any sentence from the Koran and light bonfires with it.'

The bonfires have not yet burnt Hocine and his family. He lives in a quiet area of Algiers, up in the hills. But I am forced to conceal his real name for the same reason he has been forced to install an armoured door on his apartment - to protect the innocent. His is a liberal, secular home with that unique, Franco- Algerian heritage that marks out the better educated who believe - understandably in his case - in order and law. 'Allah' in Arabic script hangs above a door, a painting of Berber horsemen riding into battle on the opposite wall; his wife is dressed in French designer clothes but serves us with dolma karnoun, the traditonal Algerian dish of artichokes stuffed with minced meat. A bottle of Algerian Coteaux de Mascara stood between the dishes. No member of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) would sit at this table.

Nor, for that matter, would any of the old nomenklatura of the FLN. Hocine was tortured by the French during the 1954-62 war and imprisoned for four years, but has no love for those of his old comrades who went on to corrupt his country. 'The FLN created the FIS,' he said. 'There were many FIS sympathisers in the party. After 1988, it was Chadli (Bendjedid) who brought in the FIS. He wanted to appease everyone because he wanted to hold on to his presidential chair. It was a huge mistake for him to hold the elections which the FIS won.'

To prevent the FIS winning the second round of elections, the poll was suspended, Mr Chadli resigned, the FIS was banned and went to war with the Algerian government - and, in their battle against armed 'Islamists', the police now impose an 11.30pm curfew. It was already 10.15pm. Our very watches reminded us of Algeria's crisis.

'We have no worries in our area,' Hocine said. Perhaps he was remembering his promise to drive us back to our hotel. 'But there are many problems elsewhere. The only thing I would reproach the security forces for is the lack of their presence at night. People in the countryside are easy prey for the terrorists.' Would General Lamine Zeroual, the Minister of Defence, be able to solve this problem if he were made president this weekend? Hocine thought Colonel Salim Saadi, the Interior Minister, would be appointed. It did not bother him that, either way, the next president would be a military man.

'The army is the only solid institution in this country. I really hope it's going to use its power to clean this country up and get it back on the rails.' Back on the rails. How often have we heard this phrase in Algeria? Hocine did not like to think of his country demoralised and broken, humiliated in the eyes of the world. And it was when he remembered the war - the real war with France, not the fearful new one that may already have started - that he showed, just once at our dinner table, real passion.

'When I came out of prison,' he said, 'I found that one of my brothers and several cousins had been killed in the war. I felt great bitterness towards the French, much hatred. But later, when I met Algerians who had spent time out of the country in the war, I found they felt less bitterness. So I didn't think about my anger again for many years.

'Then one night, we were dining in New York and a couple were speaking in French at the next table. The man asked me if I was French and I said no, I was Algerian. And then he said: 'I know Algeria. I was there in the war as a French soldier. I was in the djebel. We really taught you guys a lesson. And look what happened to your country after we left; it's a mess without us.'

'And suddenly all my bitterness flooded back over me as if my torture had happened the day before. I was so angry that I yelled at him that I would take off my clothes, there in the restaurant in New York, and show him the scars the French gave me. He tried to make amends and it died down. The French? You know, I find French people not very interesting. And sometimes I feel above them.'

And there, just briefly, as the anger subsided at our dinner table, was the pride of Algeria and the fury that may be unleashed against the young men who are now trying to destroy the heritage which - corrupted though it was by the old FLN - Hocine once fought for. We left early, because of the curfew, driving gingerly between the gendarmerie men with their Kalashnikovs guarding the bridge at Hydra, the bonfire still unlit.

(Photograph omitted)