By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
GIZA, Egypt, May 23 -- First lady Laura Bush on Monday praised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's controversial plan for elections this year, which some opposition groups say would prevent them from participating.
"I would say that President Mubarak has taken a very bold step," the first lady told reporters after touring the pyramids here. "You know that each step is a small step, that you can't be quick."
Bush's comments amounted to an endorsement of Mubarak's plan to hold Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election this year. A referendum vote is expected Wednesday on the proposal, which would require challengers to secure the backing of members of Mubarak's ruling party to participate.
Opposition groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, say the election plan blocks a serious challenge to Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 23 years. "I think it's a very wise and bold step," Bush said of the planned election, when asked about complaints from opposition groups.
Bush, who spent much of the day with Mubarak's wife, Suzan, cited the United States as an example of a free and open democracy that did not appear overnight. Mubarak "is taking the first step to open up the elections, and I think that's very, very important," she said. Critics say President Bush and the first lady should apply more pressure on Egypt to open up the election and allow in international monitors for the vote.
Earlier, Laura Bush made a cameo on "Alam Simsim," the Egyptian version of "Sesame Street." The show, which was created with the help of $8.4 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development, is extraordinarily popular, reaching 99 percent of children under the age of 8 in urban areas and a slightly smaller proportion in rural communities. The first lady appeared with a furry peach-colored character named Khokha. "Reading in English, Arabic or any other language does expand our minds," she told the audience. A few hours later, she toured a school for girls from disadvantaged families.
Bush began the day in Israel at the Church of the Resurrection in Abu Ghosh, a predominantly Muslim community near Jerusalem. She described the church, in which a Catholic bishop often ministers to local Muslims in Hebrew, as a fitting place to conclude an emotional visit to the Holy Land.
"I think that Abu Ghosh . . . can show us what it is like for the people of three religions that have so many holy sites here in the Holy Land [to] live in peace with each other," she said.
One day after armed Israeli police in Jerusalem fended off protesters during her visits to the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, the first lady said she had expected that her trip would stir such passions. She said she did not believe the hostilities overshadowed her appeals for peace to Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel and the West Bank.
"This is a place of very high tension and high emotion, and you can understand why when you see people with a deep and sincere faith in their religion are living side by side," she said. "I think the protests were very expected. If you didn't expect them, you didn't know what it would be like when you got here. I was very, very welcomed by most people."