02/04/2011 12:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mr. President: The Whole World "Is" Watching

Co-written by Sheila B. Lalwani

This is a critical time for the future of democratic reforms and for the transformation of society in many parts of the Arab world. As the world watches uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria, the Obama administration's window of opportunity is closing quickly. Now is the time for the Obama administration to deliver on the president's vision of a new way forward, as set out in his Cairo speech. This is a time for bold leadership rather than appearing to second guess and struggle to keep up as Hosni Mubarak, true to form, falls back on past performance and calls on his security apparatus to crush dissent at whatever cost to human life.

Despite America's claim to promote democracy and human rights as the Bush administration acknowledged, America (under all recent presidents) has had a legacy of "democratic exceptionalism," what many have seen as a double standard -- supposed American promotion of democracy globally, but support for authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world.

While it is understandable that the administration, like everyone else, was caught off guard by recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, now is the time for it to step out front more forcefully to reassert America's leadership in promoting self-determination and human rights, supporting a populist reformist movement rather than aging autocrats in the Middle East. This would have the effect of marginalizing the jihadists and redefining our image among the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims.

As Gallup world polls in some 44 Muslim countries indicate, Obama's election and Cairo speech initially raised the hopes of many. That hope has been replaced by disillusionment and cynicism as many see little difference between the Obama and Bush administrations. Public approval has dropped dramatically with the administration's failure to deliver on its promises to close Guantanamo and to broker a peace accord in the Middle East, as well as with increased military in Afghanistan and drone attacks that kill terrorists and innocent civilians alike, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's hesitance to speak out forcefully to support democratic forces that drove out Tunisia's president and to support a UN resolution that condemned Israel's illegal settlements.

As in Tunisia, so now in Egypt, popular protest and calls for reform challenge many long-held notions: that Arabs reject democracy, that Islam is incompatible with popular sovereignty, that the grip of entrenched authoritarian rulers of security states is unshakeable. Nevertheless, this specter of change makes many Western governments very nervous. Prodded by dire warnings from Arab regimes and Israel that any and all opposition will result in a radical Islamist takeover, many retreat to the old maxim, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't." It's time to look at the empirical evidence: Islamists in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have participated in mainstream society in elections, served in city and national governments (in parliaments, cabinets and as prime ministers). In Egypt, since the early 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood has operated as a major and effective political and social movement. It has competed and done well in elections, despite constant government harassment, including imprisonment and detention without charge or conviction. And it has remained nonviolent. On the other hand, the Mubarak government has a decades-long track record of repression, rigged elections, and use of violence by government goons to intimidate and harass all secular and Islamist opposition. It has regulated non-government civil society organizations and the media, and used military tribunals to circumvent Egypt's independent-minded courts.

A new way forward requires a new paradigm; Obama has articulated it but now needs to implement it more effectively. Mubarak's retreat to violence and intimidation to crush a popular reformist movement must be the occasion to more clearly side with the people of Egypt rather than the regime: to publicly encourage Mubarak to step down now, call for a coalition interim government under ElBaradei, and schedule free and fair presidential elections. Absent Mubarak's resignation, the U.S. should increasingly distance itself from the Mubarak government and withhold U.S. aid and assistance while building bridges and strengthening relations with representative Egyptian factions and parties.

Hosni Mubarak lives in a time warp. He has shown himself incapable of letting go. Although he initially promised to serve two terms and then step down, that never happened and in addition he has been grooming his son to take his place. In the current crisis, he strained credulity by promising to leave in September and begin a process of transformation of power. The appointment of General Omar Suleiman, a ruthless Chief of Intelligence who, after inviting the opposition to negotiate constitutional reforms and promising that the army would not use violence, has ordered protesters to get off the streets and return to "normal life" and has unleashed the overwhelming force of the military in violent confrontations.

American principles, interests and its image and credibility abroad require support for popular sovereignty and a representative form of government and condemnation of the Mubarak government's ruthless suppression of dissent and democratization.

The whole world is watching. Let's not repeat the failure of nerve we showed in the past with Tiananmen Square as we respond to the democratic aspirations of those in Tahrir Square and across Egypt. The Obama administration needs to seize the moment and the opportunity to stand behind and with Muslim democrats across Egypt and much of the Arab world.

John L. Esposito is Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and author of The Future of Islam. Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.