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In the Mideast, faint rays of hope

Grass-roots activists with cellphones are leading a drive for change.

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• In 2005, Ghada Shahbender, an Egyptian mother, organized a vast, grass-roots network of election monitors who were able to report cases of fraud instantly via cellphones. Her group, whose findings are posted online and widely cited by international media, "empowered ordinary Egyptians ... [and inspired] the birth of similar groups in Jordan and Lebanon."

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Riad Seif, a former member of Syria's parliament, led hundreds of intellectuals in issuing public demands for government reform before being jailed in 2001 for five years and rearrested last month.

Iranian intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush's writings have helped Iranians see democracy as compatible with Islam and so "provided the inspiration and intellectual foundation for a ... new reform movement."

The region's "shadows" are formidable, but Wright's analysis is not one-dimensional. She is able to round it out with detail and historical perspective.

She considers the enduring appeal of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States. The group is popular, says Wright, because it has learned to feed and inspire its people. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, delivers such rousing addresses that "lines from his speeches were popular ring tones on cellular phones [and] taxis played them instead of music."

She addresses the question of Iran's persistent defense of its right to nuclear weapons, explaining that Iranians have long viewed themselves as a Shiite island in a sea of hostile Sunni regimes. They are surrounded by five of the world's eight nuclear-armed countries and "are now effectively engaged in a new Cold War" with a sixth, the US.

Wright also surprises, by drawing attention to lesser-noticed developments. For instance, Syria's former Marxists, viewed by America with suspicion for years, have become pro-democracy leftists. "They are, in a delicious twist, becoming the best de facto allies of the West...."

Missing from Wright's account, however, is the international community's influence. In 2005, Lebanese protesters gathered in unprecedented numbers to demand that Syria end its 29-year military presence. Within months, it did.

Wright cheers "the first broad popular movement to demand sweeping change and get it." But she doesn't mention the immense pressure the United Nations put on Syria to withdraw during that time, even though in this and other cases, foreign powers partly set the parameters for local activists' success.

Wright's real interest remains the region's home-grown reformers. "What is most inspiring is not the dreams the outside world has for the people of the Middle East," she writes. "It is instead the aspirations and goals they have genuinely set for themselves."

Carol Huang is a Monitor staff editor.

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