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Can Libyans take control of their country?

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AP Photo/Nasser Nasser

(Read caption) A Libyan carries a picture of Moammar Qaddafi and chants anti-UN slogans in Cairo. A group of protesters angry about international intervention in Libya blocked the path of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as he left a meeting at the Arab League.

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The parallels between Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein are striking.

Both came to power in coups, eliminated their rivals, and went on to run their nations as sole proprietorships, enriching family, friends, and tribal allies. Unlike Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, both made too many enemies for retirement or exile to be a last resort. Both are fighting to the end.

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Qaddafi's forces are much smaller than Hussein's were. The NATO-led air campaign is rapidly degrading his military. But the opposition may be too weak to take it from there, especially if regime loyalists go underground and fight a guerrilla war.

In the days ahead, Western and Arab leaders may have to decide between two difficult options: seeing Libya collapse into the status of a failed state or getting even more deeply involved. With food and other essentials running short and thousands of refugees fleeing, it may be hard to limit outside intervention to the air war.

And when the fighting is over, assistance is likely to be needed to get Libya back on its feet and build a post-Qaddafi government.

When they are in power, strongmen like Qaddafi and Hussein stunt the growth of civil society. When they are gone, someone has to fill that role.