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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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Minarets of the Prophet Mohammed Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

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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.

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, 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.

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