A failed attempt to track change

Few American journalists are as familiar with the Middle East as Robin Wright. Having first visited Iran in 1973, lived in Beirut in the 1980s and chronicled the region on repeated trips since then, she has a deep mix of on-the-ground knowledge, awareness of the historical background and step-back policy perspective. She wrote one of the first books on militant Islam ("Sacred Rage") and two others on Iran.

Wright, currently a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, has known its violent turmoil and numbing cruelty. She witnessed the 1979 Iranian revolution consume itself with blood. (In four months in 1981 more than 1,000 government officials were killed.) In 1983 she watched rescuers remove bodies from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and months later from the U.S. Marines barracks there. She covered the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, when hundreds of thousands were killed. She was back in Iraq in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Having interviewed people who have been pushing for liberty and democracy, Wright decided enough signs of progress were emerging to merit a deeper look at the phenomenon.

As she puts it early in "Dreams and Shadows": "This is a book about disparate experiments with empowerment in the world's most troubled region. My goal was to probe deep inside societies of the Middle East for the emerging ideas and players that are changing the political environment in ways that will unfold for decades to come."

And so she has done. She went to the West Bank for the 2006 Palestinian elections, spent time with liberal opponents of the government in Egypt, interviewed the key Lebanese who helped eject Syrian troops and occupiers, and profiled Moroccan feminists and democracy activistss.

Readers are treated to clear and well-rendered accounts of Kefaya, the fledgling Egyptian dissident movement; the history of Iran's quest for nuclear power; the beginnings of Hezbollah; and fascinating tidbits like an early mention of the Kurds as a nation and how the Katyusha rocket got its name. While this is an engaging tour of a complex area, the problem is that the moment of promise that set Wright off on her trip -- the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon combined with the Iraqi, Palestinian and Egyptian elections all in quick succession -- has turned sour.

The spirit in the region that animated her quest three years ago has been exposed as more illusory than real. This leaves her book somewhat off-key. It was supposed to help understand the future, but ends up being a series of visits with some wonderful people who remain marginalized and powerless. So Wright offers a set of portraits of failed efforts. But in some ways the subsequent failures of reform lend poignancy. The section on Morocco is a good example.

Four years ago, under a new young king, Mohammed VI, Morocco set up a so-called Equity and Reconciliation Commission to expose the horrors of abuse that existed under his father's rule. Testimony was taken in public; new laws protecting human rights and women were enacted. We meet Driss Benzekri, who languished in prison for 17 years for defying the ruler at the time, King Hassan II. Later Benzekri, who died last year, was made head of a human rights group and adviser to King Mohammed. And Morocco is a less oppressive place today than it was, thanks to the new monarch.

Yet King Mohammed "is head of state," Wright writes. "He is commander in chief. He appoints the prime minister and his Cabinet. Both foreign and domestic policy comes from the palace. Judges are appointed on the recommendation of the Supreme Council, which is presided over by the king. The rubber-stamp parliament debates, but it has little power and even less oversight of government performance. The king can legislate new laws without Parliament. And he can dismiss it at will. He still has the powers of a despot."

In other words, there has been no real change in the Moroccan power structure, only greater tolerance from on high. And that could change on a whim.