- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

GIZA, Egypt — First lady Laura Bush yesterday praised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for what she called an important first step toward open elections and, standing in front of the pyramids, said building democracy is a slow process.

“I think he’s been very bold and wise to take the first step,” Mrs. Bush said of Mr. Mubarak, who has served 24 years without facing an opposing candidate for re-election.

A day after stepping into tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, Mrs. Bush spoke out on another controversy stirring along the Mediterranean Sea.

Egyptians are deciding whether to allow the country’s first multicandidate presidential election, scheduled for September, but many of Mr. Mubarak’s political opponents say the plan is little more than window dressing designed to appease reformists while keeping the president’s party in power.

Mrs. Bush told reporters that sometimes “you have to be slow” when implementing political freedoms. She noted that the United States allowed slavery long after the Constitution was adopted.

“You know that each step is a small step, that you can’t be quick. It’s not always wise to be,” she said.

The White House said last week that President Bush supports Mr. Mubarak’s plan to hold a free and competitive presidential election and urged Egypt to allow for full campaigning as well as international observers.4

Mr. Mubarak formally hasn’t announced he will run again but is widely expected to do so.

Mrs. Bush spoke to reporters after getting a tour of a new excavation site near the Giza pyramids. Earlier in the day, she and Mr. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, spent time together at the Ittihadiyya Palace, a school for girls and the set of the Egyptian version of “Sesame Street.”

The first ladies taped a segment on reading with Khokha, a peach-colored puppet with a mop of purple and brown hair that is the star of “Alam Simsim.” The show is in Arabic, but “Auntie Laura,” as Khokha called Mrs. Bush, read her lines in English and nailed it in one take.

Mrs. Bush’s breezy travels yesterday were in contrast to her hectic stops Sunday at sites sacred to Muslims and Jews. Mrs. Bush was heckled by protesters at the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

Mr. Bush talked with his wife by telephone yesterday and she told him the trip was going well, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Mr. McClellan dismissed the protests as “a little commotion” and said the demonstrators were few, although they got a lot of coverage.

Mrs. Bush said she was not surprised to encounter protesters during the weekend and pledged that the United States will do all it can to help resolve age-old conflicts.

“This is a place of very high tension and high emotion,” she said. “And you can understand why when you see that people with a deep and sincere faith in their religion are living side by side.”

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