On Monday, as tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demand a change in their autocratic, unresponsive and increasingly corrupt government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement that has caused dismay and consternation among supporters of a more democratic Egypt.

Apparently taken aback by unexpected events in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, Secretary Clinton said: “the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Given that these words were uttered at the time Egyptian state security forces were warming to their task of dispersing protesters with batons and tear gas, they were, at best, ill-judged.

In fact, they were plain wrong, and since then Secretary Clinton and other administration officials have become more unequivocal in their support of the legitimate demands of the Egyptian people. This is a welcome change and it should continue as part of a more consistent, sustained administration policy in favor of human rights, democracy and more representative government throughout the region. In Tunisia, the administration has spoken out clearly in support of the people’s demands for freedom, dignity and democracy. Now, it should do the same in Egypt.

Nothing that President Mubarak has done since the protests broke out indicates any willingness to respond to the legitimate needs of the Egyptian people for more responsive government. The protests have been met with violence with arbitrary detention of protesters, beating of detainees and efforts to disrupt communications technology like Twitter and Facebook that are being used to share information and coordinate protests. Journalists and photographers covering the protests have been among the detainees.

Moreover, only a few weeks ago, in the face of mild criticism from the U.S. government, President Mubarak and his supporters staged brazenly rigged parliamentary elections and brusquely rebuffed U.S. efforts to encourage a fairer process. The administration’s reaction was muted, leaving the damaging impression that it is out of touch with events on the ground.

Secretary Clinton’s comment also contradicted her earlier statements, at the Forum for the Future in Doha, for example, where she frankly criticized Arab rulers for their failure to meet the legitimate needs of their people, and other statements of official U.S. policy on promoting human rights and democracy in the region. As President Obama said in the State of the Union, “the United States of America supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” U.S. leaders need to get out of the habit of making strong general statements one day in support of democracy and human rights in the Middle East and following them up with silence or weaker statements when faced with actual events in specific countries that put that commitment to the test.

Principled, consistent support for human rights and democratic reform and clear identification with the demands of protesters calling for basic rights and freedoms would demonstrate to President Mubarak and his supporters that the United States does not favor a continuation of corrupt authoritarianism in the most populous country in the region.