They thought the war was over. President Liamine Zeroual - tinier than one had remembered him, smiling below his silver moustache among the beefy security men - had no sooner turned up in front of us to thank Algerians for his election victory than the shooting broke out. Plainclothes cops, blue-uniformed policemen, security agents, all heaved huge pistols from their belts and fired into the sky, sometimes only a few feet behind the presidential limousine. Not since independence can Algiers have witnessed so much gunfire.
''We have a democracy now," a policeman assured me, tugging a pistol from his holster. "We have won. It is over." But was this the way to celebrate peace, assuming President Zeroual's 60 per cent of the vote - or the election's officially pronounced 75 per cent turnout - meant peace was assured? The bullets skittered into the air, thousands of them, high over the sun-bathed city, their matchstick crackle mingled with the screams of motorists driving in convoys through the streets, Algerian flags streaming from the windows, bejewelled ladies shouting their love for the little ex-general who had just told us democracy was theirs.
From time to time, amid the crowds, flags and gunfire, you could remember the facts: a cancelled parliamentary election in 1991, thousands of political prisoners, 50,000 dead, the throat-slashings, beheadings, street executions, car bombs and ambushes. And, travelling in a convoy driving from Didouche Murad street up towards the Interior Ministry, I could not help but notice the less friendly, bearded faces of young men who watched our cars and the gun-happy cops with peculiar intensity. Was there not, one wondered at such moments, a price to be paid for all this?
You could not put that question to the authorities yesterday, as they smothered the notice boards with election results. The wilaya of Tipaza, they announced, had an 81.82 per cent turnout and Mr Zeroual had won 62.99 per cent of the vote, his nearest rival - the Hamas leader, Mahfoud Nahnah, only 23.49 per cent. In Djidjel, the turnout was 65.73, Mr Zeroual's share 58.83, Mr Nahnah's, 27.3. Only in Tizi Ouzou, capital of the Berber country, did the Kabyle leader, Said Sadi, pick up 86.2 per cent of the local vote against Mr Zeroual's puny 8.78 per cent.
"How could you doubt the turnout in Algeria of 75 per cent?" a pollster asked, when I suggested I had not seen a million Algerians on the streets of the capital on Thursday.
But there was an election, Algerians did vote and, even if suspicious reporters allowed for a little tampering with the figures, it was difficult to believe Mr Zeroual had not won. Even the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whose parliamentary election victory in 1991 led to the suspension of the poll and the banning of the party, claimed their own dubious election turnout statistic of 37 per cent was higher than they had expected. The people, the FIS said, had been intimidated by 400,000 soldiers and policemen. But unlike the armed ''Islamists'' who support the FIS, the security men had not threatened to kill every voter who turned up at the polling stations.
So you could see why the dapper ex-general was grinning from ear to ear yesterday morning as he hugged and kissed the tearful supporters around us. He had gambled and won, held an election under the shadow of the knife and persuaded Algerians to vote in it, the turnout - even if you deduct a percentage or two - higher than the poll that would have given Algeria to the FIS three years ago.
The people had changed their views; that was the message the government advertised yesterday. If they had given their vote to "Islamists" in the 1991-92 poll, they now gave it to Mr Zeroual, to "legitimacy", to "stability", to - and how important this word becomes each day in Algeria - "democracy".
Amid the euphoria, few seemed to reflect on the future. If an election boycotted by the opposition and in which the FIS could not be represented is to be the key to turn back on the motor of democracy, what does President Zeroual do next? Tell the West, of course, that he needs help, that a country with a new, proved democratic mandate deserves the economic and political (and military?) support of Europe and the United States. And tell his electoral opponents, Sheikh Nahnah of Hamas and Said Sadi and the Islamist intellectual Nurredine Boukhrou to join him and share power. But does he also try once more to talk to those with whom he was once prepared to negotiate, the FIS? And thus, by inference, to the regime's cruellest enemies, the armed "Islamists"?
Such thoughts did not occupy the minds of the thousands who flocked onto the streets of Algiers last night, dancing to the sound of gunfire, ululating through the traffic jams, celebrating that most illusory of all phenomena - the peace that comes without a ceasefire or a treaty. For, if the celebrations symbolised some form of national relief, they must also - to the unsmiling young men on the pavements - have seemed a provocation, something devoutly to be hated, something to which there must be a response. It was not a happy thought, that there might be a grim price to pay for all this.
"What do you think, Mr Robert?" asked one of the Interior Ministry men amid the gunfire. I smiled, but thought better of replying. When he repeated his question, I just looked at a cop firing a Kalashnikov into the sky. The man shrugged, then grinned. "This is our way, in Algeria," he said.