In the Mideast, faint rays of hope

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

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The Middle East has long been associated with suicide bombs, intractable conflict, and dictators. But in her fifth book on the region, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, veteran journalist Robin Wright takes up a new thread for the region's 21st century: positive, home-grown change.

The Middle East is seeing a growing backlash against decades-old authoritarian regimes and Islamic radicalism, says Wright, who first reported from the region in 1973 and now covers US foreign policy for The Washington Post. People across the region are now pushing for Option No. 3: human rights, freedom, and democracy – and often at great risk.

Wright's journalistic skills are on full display in these 400-plus pages. Absorbing accounts of brave activists are interwoven with relevant context and history in clear, vivid language. These elements make the book an engaging read, and a useful one for people who want to better understand this important part of the world.

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The region's energetic reformists won't necessarily succeed, Wright warns. "A trend struggling for decades to take root has finally begun – and, I stress, only begun – to have impact.... When I started out on this latest journey, the region was full of dreams. As I finished it, serious shadows loomed in many places."

These shadows are what usually dominate Western headlines: insurgents killing civilians in Iraq, Egypt's leaders manipulating election laws to stay in power, the Syrian regime jailing dissidents indefinitely.

By drawing attention instead to the people who no longer want these forces to dominate their country, Wright provides a refreshingly different account of the region – even though hers is a cautious optimism at best.

The obstacles vary by country, as do the cultural and religious landscapes in which they operate. Wright acknowledges the region's diversity by tackling the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Morocco, and Iraq separately.

A few common threads pull these areas together, though. Many of the region's dreamers are youths, who make up a majority of the populations. Technology is another driving force, as mobile phones and the Internet help activists better monitor their governments and coordinate their movements.

Wright offers several brief profiles of the home-grown activists she has seen having an impact in the region:

• 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."

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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