A bit late for a 15-year-old, Algeria has realized there are no miracles.
It has not been a pleasant discovery. Since 1962, when Algeria won independence from France after a nasty war that lasted nearly eight years, this country was buoyed by a feeling of special grace, as if somehow its citizens were latter-day messiahs come to extract the Third World's due.
Now Algeria is mires in problems - domestic and foreign, economic and political - that have become the tiresomely familiar heritage of many developing countries.
Gone are the days when Algeria styled itself the "beacon of African socialism" although the temptation to pose as the Third World leader continues to smolder.
Gone, too, are the pretensions that, thanks to its oil and natural gas riches, Algeria would discover that Holy Grail, the successful model for rapid industrialization and economic development.
The official pitch these days is much less heady. Indeed, in the past year the government - labeled totalitarian by its enemies - has sometimes encouraged and almost always has tolerated a litany of public criticism that long since has ceased to shock.
"Reading our press you'd think nothing really works," said a still enthusiastic Algerian who was convinced somehow that this openness in itself promised better days ahead.
Catalogued in print are tales of defectice roads, lawlessness, doubtful hygiene, insufficient schools, under and unemployment, corruption in the public sector and speculation in the private one, absenteeism inefficiency, missing spare parts, industrial sabotage, overpopulation, food shortages and mismanagement.
Actually the record is no worse than in many countries, although it is obviously embarrassing for Algeria, which had set its goals so high.IT is hardly surprising then that the revolutionary fervor, that helped win the war and prevent collapse in the first desperate years of independence has waned except in the official rhetoric.
Today the over-40 generation, which bore the brunt of a war in which as many as a million persons died, seems disenchanted with unkept past promises, years of abnegation and what is perceived as falling living standards.
Half the nation was not even born when the war ended and the young show no enthusiasm for war stories.
Like their contemporaries elsewhere, consumer society immediately. Thanks to the daily exposure of French radio and Italian television, they know what is incolved.
The bounty of quadrupled petroleum prices has turned into a double-edged weapon, for no longer do Algerians seem as disposed to accept the sacrifices of less-affluent days as a matter of course.
Even President Houari Boumediene has felt sufficiently frustrated to warn that he might quit if the country no longer wants to pursue the path of revolutionary socialism, according to reports of a speech to a labor congress.
Yet, no one really expects Bounmediene, a secretive and remote leader, to abandon the power he siezed in 1965 and has so cleverly nurtured.
Indeed, if the country seems uncertain about its future, it is partly because Boumediene felt strong enough in April to reshuffle the government.
In addition to firing the interior minister and the national police commander, he demoted Belaid Abdessalam, the hitherto undisputed economic and industrial czar.
Abdessalam's disgrace signaled at least a pause in the headlong pursuit of industrialization of the past dozen years.
Proud, intelligent, inspired and hard driving - but also reclusive and distrustful - Abdessalam almost single-handedly created factories all over the country.
Under his theory, Algeria's oil and natural gas riches would give the country the resources to build petrochemical plants, which in turn would set off a proliferation of industrialization.
The theory called for state direction and ownership in this process with exceptionally high investments designed to achieve self-sustained growth and maximum economic independence.
Although the economy has been expanding at an impressice annual clip of as much as 11 per cent in some recent years, his policy was a failure.
Such extravagant mismanagement helps to explain why the next three year plan, which begins in 1978, is supposed to "digest" what has already been done rather than plunge ahead. In plain language that would seem to mean the priority now is how to make the existing plant work.
Right now Algeria has pinned much of its hopes of avoiding economic strangulation on massive natural gas sales to the United States, once considered the epitome imperialism.
The problem is a recurring shortage of foreign exchange. Algeria narrowly avoided a collapse just before the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, then again in 1975 when first Saudi Arabian, then Libyan capital came to the rescue when Algeria overcommitted itself.
Even by official calculation, Algeria is committed to such heavy foreign borrowing to honor its part of the gas deals that the dept service ratio is expected to rise to a dangerous 25 per cent by 1982 before declining.
The more difficult choice of allowing competition by private enterprise to try to get the existing plants working efficiently remains ideological anathema. Yet, private enterpreneurs have begun to flourish and a fair number of millionaires have emerged since Abdessalam's disgrace.
Leaders from Boumediene on down fins it politically expedient to warn of the dangers of the middle-class capitalist impulse. That is easier than accepting a thoroughgoing reassessment of priorities dealing with less glamorous, but more basic problems.
For example, there is Algeria's 3.34 per cent annual population increase. IT is badly straining the once impressive infrastucture left behind by the French - the roads, ports, electrification, airports, sewage systems and railroads that allowed independent Algeria to get a head start on development.
There are now 17 million Algerians - almost twice as many as at independence. In increasing numbers they are deserting the countryside and flooding into already badly overcrowded cities in search of elusive jobs.
Consider also that Algeria, once the granary of the Roman Empire and a producer of high yield cash crops for an export market under the French, now has to spend a third of its oil and natural gas earnings to import food. Farms taken over by Algeruans when the French owners fled soon after independence are mostly money losers, but they consitute the best farming land.
Few Algerian plants function at anything near capacity because of a lack of experienced staff, mismanagement or spare parts' shortages. The worst - but by no means only - example is the state-owned stell company which cost $2 billion and is reportedly operating at between 30 and 40 per cent of capacity.
State-owned companies cover everything from the leather industry to publishing but only the state-run airline and the petroleum sector make much money.
"They probably know better now," a Western businessman said, "but such is the ideological commitment to their system that Algerians still think they can solve problems by throwing money at them."
Industrialization has now reached the stage that Algeria cannot stop importing raw materials and spare parts for its new plant. Logic would demand that public investment in the industrial sector, which once absorbed as much as 43 per cent of the total, should be cut back to meet the population's everyday needs and demands.
"In a way it's a miracle the patient has survived," another Westerner remarked, "saddled as Algeria was with the legacy and Soviet-style economic models."
The route out of this economic disorder is not an easy one.
The very notion of performance - or at least any agreed yardstick to measure it - has been neglected. Instead the government stressed the social fallout in terms of housing, health care and education when a facotyr was put in some region far from the more developed Mediterranean coastal strip.
Officials defensively explained that such investment at least allowed Algeria to train specialized manpower or that it is cheaper to buy plant and equipment now in an increasingly inflationary world even if they cannot be put to immediate use.
The entent of the state-run corporations' inefficiency is often visible at ports where machinery ordered overseas sits rusting on the docks because a company has failed to arrange a pickup. Recently a large area near Algiers airport was paved to handle overflow incoming shipments - not from air freight, but from Algiers port.
"Four or five years ago," a long-ministers I'd chide about farm neglect would angrily say I wanted more investment in agriculture to keep Algeria an underdeveloped nation . . . Industry was the solution. They've stopped talking like that of late."
Farming produced 21 per cent of gross domestic product in 1936, but only 7 per cent last year and Algeria imports an estimated fifth of its cereals, a third of its milk and milk products, three-quaters of its fats and almost all its sugar and butter.
The government launches periodic public campaigns to try to improve the situation. They tend to start off with a spurt of enthusissm in the media and official speechmaking, and then subside to make way for yet another campaign.
In times past the campaign has been to get laundry off Algiers' balconies, but now the president himslef is involved in the "battle for management," a clear sign the government realizes how series that problem is.
Boumediene seems as secure in office as ever. Critics after curse his ministers for their "new class" acquistions such as European cars worth $60,000 here and million-dollar villas but they generally make an exception for the ascetic president.
Still, for the first time pamplets appeared this year interspersed verses from the Koran with passages denouncing Boumediene as a dangerous Marxist and agent of Moscow.
As has been true since the war for independence, Boumediene's strenght lies with the army. It is the now middle-aged generation that fought the war that holds the real power, although younger, better-educated men are in charge of much of the economy and administration.
Many of these veterans have gotten fat - literally and figuratively.
In a page from both the French and American experience in Southeast Asia, the chosen instrument for much such personal enrichment has been the business interests of army officers' wives.
It is penny-ante corruption by the standards of much of black Africa or of other oil-rich Arab countries, but during a round of strikes in Algiers this summer - a rare occasion in this single-party state - the transport workers to discourage further untrest - was proof that the government had gotten the message.
Although the salary increases doubtless will fuel inflation, which is already though to be running about 20 per cent annually, the strikers seemed interested only in their bread-and-butter demands.
The Paris-based opposition, made up of embittered former Algerian revolutionaries discarded over the years, tried hard to prove that the strikes showed the Algerians were fed up with Boumediene's rule.
Not even Boumediene's personal backing for the Polisario guerrillas contesting the Mauritanian and Moroccan carveup of the former Spanish Sahara seems to have captured the public imagination one although, perhaps inevitably, the public tends to blame the various shortages on Algeria's backing of the guerrilla operations.