CAIRO -- Mohamed Morsi, the son of a peasant farmer who rose through the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, was sworn in Saturday as Egypt’s first freely elected president in a historic and potentially dangerous transition from military rule to a democratic government.
The spirit of an unpredictable new era marked the day as Morsi sought to project a populist’s air while brushing up against the pillars of the old guard. Dressed in a dark suit and wearing a trimmed beard, he symbolized a region’s rising political Islam even as the authority of his office has been diminished by the generals.
"We aspire to a better tomorrow, a new Egypt and a second republic," Morsi said immediately after he took his presidential oath before the Supreme Constitutional Court. "Today, the Egyptian people laid the foundation of a new life — absolute freedom, a genuine democracy and stability."
The new leader pressured the military in a speech at Cairo University, promising his countrymen that the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak last year would not rest until Morsi was granted full presidential powers. Such pronouncements from a conservative Islamist who grew up in the fields of the Nile delta thrilled much of the country and defined the fierce political struggle between Morsi and the military.
But the uncharismatic, U.S.-educated engineer showed a degree of political pragmatism he will likely need in the sensitive task of rolling back the military’s grip. With Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council, sitting before him in the university auditorium, Morsi repeatedly praised the army and credited the generals for allowing him to assume power.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has kept its word and fulfilled its promise," he said. "The elected institutions will come back to take their roles and the great army will return to protecting the borders of the country."
He added that the military would remain "strong and solid" and he would keep "good relations between this institution and the people."
That tone irritated activists and revolutionaries who have blamed the army for crackdowns, scores of deaths and human rights abuses over the last 16 months. But it showed in stark terms Morsi’s transformation from an opposition figure to a head of state attempting to appeal to revolutionary voices while appeasing the traditional powers suspicious of Islam’s influence on public policies and institutions.
"That's the price he had to pay to win,” said Ahmed Aggour, an activist. "He officially told the army: 'I will be your puppet, I'll protect your interests, and ensure your safety.' That’s why Tantawi was clapping."
Morsi’s biggest challenges are the deepening economic and social programs and realigning Egypt's vast and corrupt bureaucracy. In the coming months, however, much of his focus will be on wresting power from the generals, shaping a constitution rooted in Sharia law and working to restore the Islamic-dominated parliament, which was dissolved this month by the constitutional court over voting irregularities.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Mohamed Morsi stands before an honor guard before he was sworn in as Egypt's president. Credit: Office of the president of Egypt / AFP/Getty Images