"Take your badge off," an official shouted at me as I left a government building yesterday morning. He was being kind - he didn't want me to walk the streets of Algiers with a ministry pass proclaiming my identity as a foreign journalist. Staying alive has become the preoccupation of everyone here.
"Algers La Blanche" is still a place of breathtaking beauty, with its white-painted French apartments running down to the great and wind-wrinkled bay. But one looks at it through a glass darkly. As many as 200 men and women are now dying every week at the hands of the "Islamists" and government security men in the country's terrifying war.
The figure is widely believed, but there is no official death toll from a military-backed government which not only controls "security" news but insists that its "war against terrorism" is so successful that Algerians should vote today in a constitutional referendum.
The police have already moved into schools to prevent the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) blowing up polling stations. In the slums of Bab el-Oued, the people have stocked up on food in case the GIA follows through on its threat to "break the neck" of anyone who votes. Given the record of the past few weeks, neck-breaking would be a charitable way of dying, though you wouldn't know that from the papers. The government has seen to that.
In yesterday's edition of Liberte, for example, you could find some ritual expressions of condolence in the personal col-umns for the families of Ma- dame Miassa Khellil and Mr Rabah Tariket, both recently "deceased". There was further grief expressed to families for the "cruel loss" of "Zaddem Sid Ali, for his wife and for their two small daughters, Naziha and Selma". Since things are supposed to be getting better in Algeria, mourners cannot say how their loved-ones died.
A little resrearch by The Independent, however, revealed the truth. Madame Khellil and Mr Tariket, who were both government officials in Boumerdes, were stopped by Islamists wearing police uniform at a faux barrage - a fake roadblock - on the road to Tiaret. Their throats were cut.
Zaddem Sid Ali and his family - he worked for the government furniture import company - were stopped on a road near Chlef and assassinated. No- one would say how.
So have 50,000 died in the Algerian war since the government suspended the elections which the Islamic Salvation Front were due to win in 1991? Or 60,000? Or 70,000?
All we are told is that a vote today will help to secure the democracy which President Liamine Zeroual's election a year ago set in motion. And we Europeans - as frightened of Algeria's calamity as we are desperate to ignore it - are being invited to believe that the new constitution will prevent political parties based on religion, effectively depriving the outlawed FIS of any future existence. There will be no more Islamic victories in future elections.
But the new constitution also provides for a new Algerian upper house of parliament, one- third of whose members will be appointed by President Zeroual and three-quarters of whose members will have to approve new legislation - which effectively gives the president a veto over the entire parliament.
It also acknowledges an Arab identity and recognises the Amerzeit language of the powerful Kabyle minority - without officially acknowledging the language.
Opponents of the regime thus suspect that the new constitution - far from reconstruct- ing democracy - is intended to provide a facade of pluralism behind which the old National Liberation Front (FLN) and their cronies, along with "soft" Islamic groups, such as the Algerian Hamas movement, will recreate the old one-party state.
And when Dr Said Saadi, the Kabyle leader of the Rassemblement de la Culture et la Democratie (RDP), tried to put Algeria's democracy to the test yesterday, it was indeed found sadly wanting. Having been invited to address journalists at the government's press centre, he was forbidden entry by a policeman - a very large policeman in a blue uniform with lots of silver braid - on the grounds that the RDP leader did not possess a government badge.
"OK," Dr Saadi shrugged in our direction, "I invite you to take coffee with me at the Aurassi Hotel - we're better off there than in this suffocating place."
But there was no coffee for us at the Aurassi, just words. Harsh, dark words of pessimism. "In Algeria, no-one listens to us unless they do it with listening devices," he muttered.
"A year after the presidential elections, the political impasse is total ... society is ruled by terror ... the former FLN people are taking over ... the press is attacked, corruption is taking off again ... nothing seems to discourage or deter the regime even if this leads to a social explosion."
It went on and on. Poverty, corruption, censorship. "Those who are not killed by the GIA are persecuted by the regime," Dr Saadi announced. When a man in Berjaia had supported the RDP's call for a referendum boycott two days ago, he had been kidnapped - the implication was that this had been done by the security authorities - while 12 students had been arrested "at Kalashnikov point" because they criticised President Zeroual. An old man, Dr Saadi added, had told him how parliament had more rights under the French than under the current Algerian regime. Algeria was not experiencing a civil war because "this is not a war between civilian parties but against civilians".
Algerians in France, able to vote early, have shown little enthusiasm for the referendum. Of those I spoke to here, some shrugged wearily at the prospect of voting again, others claimed the poll was a trap, while one enthusiastically supported the new constitution on the grounds that Algeria needs a dictatorship.
All across Algiers, you can see the gap-toothed symbols of this pessimism. The wreckage of the Hotel d'Angleterre, blown up by a bomb in September - one dead, said the government, 10 said a cafe proprietor, 83 said a man whose friend lost a leg in the explosion.
"There's another cafe they've just blown up," our driver said as we passed a boarded-up shop in Dr Franz Fannon Street. "The police used to take breakfast there, so they bombed it."
"No wonder Dr Saadi's bleakness is infectious. Firmly supporting the village "auto- defence" militias - widely believed to include death squads - he had no doubts about the Islamists.
"Fundamentalism is like death," he said. "You only experience it once."Reuse content