ALGIERS, Algeria -- The most powerful man in Algeria has no official position, gives no interviews and is hardly seen in town.
In theory, Khalid Nizar, a former army commander and a former defense minister, is retired and lives quietly on his pension. But even the least informed Algerian will tell you that no significant policy move or key military or government appointment can go through without his nod.
In the last four years, as the military-socialist regime in Algeria has fought a growing Islamic rebellion, the country has had three presidents and four prime ministers. But another set of leaders ,, has not changed. These are the men who pull the strings, those whom Algerians long ago took to calling "Le Pouvoir Occulte," or the Hidden Power.
Algeria, it turns out, is a place where prime ministers, Cabinet ministers and even presidents are just faces presented to the public, while those who really rule do not flaunt their authority.
They have risen from senior army command posts or from the ranks of the old ruling party, the Front for National Liberation. One Arab diplomat says they do not exceed 200 figures.
It is this group that the Islamic fundamentalists are really fighting, and it is their power that must be overthrown if the new Algerian revolution is to win.
But there is a deep irony. If the Islamic militants ever do attain power, the one thing they are least likely to change is the habit of keeping figureheads in the limelight while real power remains in the shadows.
This runs deep in the political culture in a region where social and economic problems are so firmly rooted that failure is always around the corner, and power-brokers need to be able to shelter themselves from blame.
The notion of "hidden power," in fact, predominates in the labor movement, the press, the vital oil industry, education, business, health and trade groups. And it is the rule among the armed militants.
For example, much of the world considers the most powerful Islamic militant to be the 64-year-old Abassi Madani. But militants knew even before Mr. Madani was jailed in 1992 that their fighters took orders only from a fiery 35-year-old deputy of his, Ali Belhadj.
Now Mr. Belhadj is in jail, too, and the militant Islamic opposition is splitting into factions. And the new shock troops known as the Armed Islamic Group are in the hands again of little-known figures -- this time men who use noms de guerre and are called the Afghans, after the place where they received their military and ideological training in the 1980s.
There is, of course, a big difference between the "hidden power" that now controls Algeria and the one that seeks to supplant it. Algeria's basic division is between those who, after the 1954-1962 war for independence from France, continued to accept the French mold and those who rejected it.
The Francophiles, who still rule, are not to be confused with willing collaborators with France, or Westernized Algerians. But they retain secularism as their style of life, as contrasted to Islamic fundamentalism.
This class is being challenged by people who consider $l themselves Arabophiles -- those who took seriously a government campaign to rid Algeria of its colonial heritage in the 1970s, and shifted to a poorly organized brand of Arab education.
Eventually, this group became the underclass from which the Islamic Salvation Front recruited its revolutionary cadres.
In 1988, when a popular upheaval exploded with tens of thousands of Algerians demanding jobs, food and housing, the habit of keeping real power hidden only helped to deepen the crisis.
The regime's powers decided to do away with the Front for National Liberation as a single ruling party, in favor of a system in which 65 parties, including an Islamic opposition party, would compete in elections.
But at least 40 of these parties were the creations of various people already in the power structure, while others were insignificant movements of not more than a handful of people.
In that situation, a unified Islamic opposition and a Berber ethnic movement were able to quickly solidify their support and shock the old regime in the parliamentary elections of 1991, when Islamic militants carried a majority of seats in Parliament.
The regime's real leaders then decided to keep power at all costs in the hands of the "Pouvoir Occulte." President Chadli Ben Jedid was deposed, the election results were canceled and the Islamic party was banned.