In 2002 I authorised publication with the apparently inoffensive title of The Arab Human Development Report. Within days of its release, a million copies of the Arabic language edition had been downloaded, and the new al-Jazeera television channel was debating it endlessly. Shortly afterwards, a closed door ministerial meeting of the Arab League condemned its calls for democracy, women’s rights and secular education – and its warnings about the region’s stagnation and youth unemployment. The region was becalmed, even as democratisation and economic liberalisation swept through so much of the rest of the world.

My career, first as a political adviser to insurgent democratic oppositions and then mediating various revolutions from the top ranks of the UN, leads me to three lessons at this point in the Arab world’s tsunami. First, it should have happened sooner. Second, it did not because countries such as Libya and Egypt were security states that allowed no opposition to grow. This will now be a handicap. Third, the US will have a much bigger, although uneven, role in steering these countries through their current conflict, and then transition, than is fashionable to acknowledge.

When I found myself up against these angry Arab League ministers it was as head of the UN’s development arm. Our report had been written by a group of Arab policy experts, so we were free of the charge of western meddling. Leading a multibillion dollar development agency, I nevertheless despaired of making any difference in the Arab region unless we could stimulate an intellectual revolution. People were locked into a serfdom of ideas and politics that shackled their national life.

So the events of recent weeks are a cause to celebrate. This really is an Arab spring. But, at best, it is only the beginning of a liberation of minds and people. In Tunisia and Egypt, decades of suppressed workers’ rights and societal inequalities are bursting to the surface. Transitional rulers may soon fall back into old habits, preferring stability over democratic chaos. After all, as big economic stakeholders in the old order, Egyptian generals have a lot to lose from democracy. This backlash may, in Bahrain, lead to a compromise where there is a coup inside the royal family rather than a full transition to democracy.

Concerns will grow about whether new regimes in Egypt and elsewhere will harm relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US. Yet my experience is that relations abroad usually remain largely unchanged following such events. When Cory Aquino pushed President Ferdinand Marcos out of power in the Philippines in 1986, she threatened to throw out American military bases. The outcome was much more incremental: a mutually agreed reduction in the US presence that served both governments well.

Egypt will still want to triangulate relations with Israel and Palestine, the army will retain a powerful say and the US will probably continue to be the critical non-regional ally, even if a democratic Egyptian government employs stroppier rhetoric. The huge gain will be that a democratic government may be able to take risks for peace that its authoritarian precursor never could. After all, it will have a popular mandate.

It is a different story, however, on the domestic front. Here the risk is not Iran in 1979, but the Philippines in 1986, Latin America throughout the 1980s or eastern Europe in 1989. In most of these cases the eventual democratic governments proved initially weak, and in most cases unable to drive through the economic reforms that could have brought relief to those who had voted for them.

The reason for this was that a collection of workers, social activists, economic liberals, and those on the way out politically, combined to throw out what they knew they opposed – be it Mr Marcos, various ageing Latin American leaders or jowly communist apparatchiks. Once that was achieved, their agreement simply melted away. They knew what they were against, but not what they were for.

The final mixed lesson for the region is that, for all the talk of America’s best years being behind it, this crisis in some ways reaffirms how Washington’s role is as important as it has been in every democratic revolution of the past 30 years. Its reputation may not be high with the protesters, but the US ability to tell a Bahraini or Egyptian regime when it is time to leave, and to then help steer the transition, remains unparalleled.

The great exceptions are Libya, and should the protests take greater hold, Syria and Iran. Here the American writ evidently does not run. Yet leadership now devolves very directly on President Barack Obama to do two things much of Washington will resist. What he tried to do, in his Cairo speech six months into his administration, is now in reach. He can begin to detoxify America’s brand by putting it on the side of democratic change. For America’s existing allies in the region, that means helping to usher them out even when their successors are something of a gamble. But with regimes such as Libya’s Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, it means the painful (and for the US Congress controversial) process of working through the despised UN and Arab League, to build a new, legitimate multilateral consensus to isolate him and pressure him into conceding.

It is one of those global moments when a US president has to take sides. When in doubt, or when pushed back by Congress or his own State department, he should think of the courage of the Libyan protesters, and the aspirations of a generation of young Arabs who have made this moment possible.

The writer is a former international political consultant, former UN deputy secretary-general and author of The Unfinished Global Revolution

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