Two years after a revolution that shattered its economy and security, Tunisia fears it will confront a new threat from the violent spillover of the war in Mali.
Tunisian politicians and military experts said regional upheaval could spread to Tunisia as it has to Algeria, where Islamist gunmen on Wednesday seized a gas plant and dozens of foreign hostages.
"All the destabilization [in Mali and Algeria] has the risk of creating instability here," Said Aidi, an opposition politician who was minister of employment and training in Tunisia's post-revolutionary transitional government, said Thursday. "We have to pay a lot of attention to this war."
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki met Abdelkader Ben Salah, president of Algeria's national council, on Jan. 12, the day after France launched airstrikes in northern Mali against the rebel Islamist coalition. They agreed to establish a common strategy to deal with what they called a "security challenge for the countries of the region."
Tunisia does not share a border with Mali – its neighbours are Algeria, to the west, and Libya, to the east – but it is well known that Tunisia has acted as a weapons transit corridor from Libya, through Algeria, into Mali. Tunisia has placed 2,500 military personnel on its southern borders to increase security as the potential for weapons and drugs smuggling is heightened by the war.
Mehdi Taje, a Tunisian scholar and consultant who specializes in the Maghreb and the Sahel, said in an interview that the Mali war poses many risks to Tunisia and the western parts of North Africa.
One of his big fears is that Tunisians will join the fight in Mali. "Tunisians who have no future at home will go fight with the Islamist rebels in Mali," he said. "After fighting there, they might come back to Tunisia. They will be well-trained and far more radicalized."
It is possible that a "jihadist cell" could establish itself in the south of Tunisia, he said.
Mr. Taje said the geopolitical situation is complicated by Algeria's sometimes strained relationship with Tunisia. Some Algerians factions, he said, oppose Tunisia because it has become democratic. Other Algerian factions do not support the French intervention in Mali. "I think this is just the start of a long war," he said. "The French could have an Afghanistan in north Mali."
On Tuesday, Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said that Tunisia opposes all non-African military operations in Mali. "We believe that the problems arising in Africa must be resolved within an African framework," he said.