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Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Tuesday, 24 May 2005 11:51 UK

Mrs Bush on Arab children's show

Laura Bush meets Arab puppet Khokha in Egypt
'Auntie Laura' got her words right first time

US First Lady Laura Bush stepped into both politics and children's television during a visit to Egypt.

She commended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on taking what she said was an important first step towards reform.

She also took part in the Arab equivalent of the US children's show Sesame Street, Alam Simsim.

Mrs Bush was on the latest leg of a tour of the Middle East, during which she was heckled in Jerusalem by both Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Opposition politicians in Egypt have likewise criticised her reading of changes in the voting system.

Mrs Bush spent much of Monday with her Egyptian counterpart Suzanne Mubarak, visiting the pyramids, a school for girls, and the set of Alam Simsim.

High illiteracy

The first ladies were filmed for the show, doing a segment on reading with the girl puppet Khokha, an ambitious character who wants to learn.

A theme of Mrs Bush's visit has been girls' education.

The Egyptian government says only half of the country's women can read and write.

Although the programme is in Arabic, Mrs Bush - or Auntie Laura, as Khokha called her - read her part in English.

The show is funded by the US government's development arm USAid. The US president's wife also signalled approval of Egypt's tentative moves towards democracy.

Laura Bush in front of the Giza Pyramids
Mrs Bush made the pyramids part of her trip

The country is due to hold a referendum on Wednesday on whether to change the constitution to allow presidential elections with more than one candidate.

Mr Mubarak has held power for 24 years without a democratic challenge.

"I think he's been very bold and wise to take the first step," Mrs Bush said.

Sometimes reforms "have to be slow", she said.

"You know that each step is a small step, that you can't be quick. It's not always wise to be."

Some opposition leaders later criticised Mrs Bush's analysis of the situation, saying the progress was non-existent or even backwards.

"There are no reform steps at all. The regime is still following the dictatorial and repressive method towards the Egyptian people and opposition," said Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

"She is not aware of the government's low manoeuvres," said Mazen Mustafa of the liberal Ghad party.

The opposition says the conditions laid down for presidential elections effectively exclude any candidates not endorsed by members of Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

SEE ALSO
Laura Bush heckled in Jerusalem
22 May 05 |  Middle East
Laura Bush urges Arab women role
21 May 05 |  Middle East
How democratic is the Middle East?
03 Mar 05 |  Middle East

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