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Laura Bush praises Egypt's leader

Hails step toward open elections

GIZA, Egypt -- In front of the pyramids of Giza, Laura Bush said yesterday that building democracy is a slow process, and she praised President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt for what she called an important first step toward open elections.

''I think he's been very bold and wise to take the first step," Bush said of the Egyptian president, who has served 24 years without facing an opposing candidate for reelection.

A day after stepping into tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, the US president's wife addressed another heated controversy stirring along the Mediterranean Sea.

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

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.

Last week, the White House said President Bush supports Mubarak's plan to hold free and competitive elections for president and urged Egypt to allow for full campaigning as well as international observers.

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

Bush spoke to reporters at the pyramid complex in Giza after getting a tour of a new excavation site here. Earlier in the day, she and 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."

Bush's breezy travel activities yesterday were in contrast to her hectic stops Sunday at sites sacred to Muslims and Jews. She was heckled by protesters at the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, while Israeli police and Secret Service agents had to hold back the crowds and aggressive local media who tried to rush her.

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