Image: Laura Bush with Egyptian students.
Brian Snyder  /  Reuters
First lady Laura Bush sits with students at the Om El Kora School in Alexandria, Egypt, on Tuesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 5/24/2005 8:21:01 AM ET 2005-05-24T12:21:01

Laura Bush encouraged leading Egyptian women to continue speaking out for equality and peace Tuesday as she wrapped up a Mideast tour that raised her own voice.

“And I know from visiting women around the world, from visiting with Palestinian women this week and Israeli women this week that women want to be involved in civil society,” she told the women who have influential positions in Egyptian government, academia and culture. “Women want to be able to contribute to their countries, just like men do, and that women want peace”

America’s librarian turned first lady made a final stop at the Bibliotheca Alexandria, built near the site of the ancient library destroyed in the 1st century. Earlier, she visited a school for girls and spoke to women to underscore two of her main themes she wanted to promote on the trip, education and gender equality.

Controversial issues
But Mrs. Bush also got involved in more controversial issues in the region during her five-day tour, drawing Israeli and Palestinian protesters during visits to Jerusalem’s holy sites and praising disputed election changes in Egypt.

Egyptians vote Wednesday on a referendum that would amend the constitution to allow for the country’s first multi-candidate presidential election in September. But leading opposition groups object to the plan, saying they are being kept out of the process that they say is designed to keep President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party in power.

Mrs. Bush praised Mubarak on Monday as “bold and wise” for taking the initial step in opening the process after facing no opposing candidates in the 24 years since he’s been elected.

Mubarak’s opponents rejected Bush’s interpretation of Egyptian politics, saying they could not even see the progress she was praising.

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

“We feel the speed is not even slow, but even backwards sometimes,” said Mazen Mustafa, a member of the liberal Ghad Party and the Kefaya protest movement.

“I don’t think Mrs. Bush represents the administration and she is not aware of the government’s low maneuvers,” he added.

Laura Bush’s remarks, made during a visit to the Giza pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo, adopted the Egyptian government position on Mubarak’s proposal and on the pace of reform which Egypt can sustain.

Opposition calls for boycott
The opposition says that a constitutional amendment on how to choose the president will in effect ensure that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) can stay in power indefinitely.

They are calling on Egyptians to boycott Wednesday’s referendum on the amendment, which sets tough conditions for independents and political parties to seek the presidency.

The recognized parties have an exemption from the conditions this year but analysts say that after years of exclusion from the mainstream media they cannot field a credible rival to Mubarak, who is widely expected to seek a fifth six-year term.

Habib said: “The regime is eager to ensure that the situation remains just as stagnant and frozen as ever. The emergency law is still in place and public freedoms are still suffering from deficiency and atrophy.”

Habib said the number of Brotherhood members in custody had reached 960 in a crackdown which began in March. Most of the charges are for offences such as belonging to an outlawed organization, organizing demonstrations, possessing leaflets for distribution or “inciting hatred of the regime.”

Laura Bush had more praise for Mubarak and the Egyptian government on Tuesday when she spoke at the U.S. ambassador’s residence.

“Egypt is a very, very important friend of the United States. We have a longtime friendship, and Egypt has been a leader in peacemaking, and I appreciate that,” she said.

'A cathedral to the book'
Later Tuesday, at the Bibliotheca Alexandria, Mrs. Bush visited the children’s library and the striking seven-story main viewing hall that opened three years ago. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, gave her a rare pen from the library’s inauguration and then Mrs. Bush signed the guest book with a less precious writing instrument.

“From a librarian, what a wonderful building, a cathedral to the book, and an example to the rest of the world,” she wrote.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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