CAIRO // Mohammed Morsi officially became Egypt's first elected civilian leader yesterday and promised to bring "genuine democracy and stability".
The former Muslim Brotherhood official took the oath of office and formally accepted executive authority from the military. a day earlier, he had begun his administration on a high note - delivering an energetic speech in front of thousands of cheering supporters in Tahrir Square. Yesterday's events were, by comparison, more formal and full of official pomp and circumstance.
Egypt's new president started the day by formally swearing his oath of office, then moved to the grounds of Cairo University to deliver a speech to a hall packed with VIPs, and finally to a military base for the full military power transfer ceremony.
"Today, the Egyptian people laid the foundation of a new life — absolute freedom, a genuine democracy and stability," Mr Morsi said after swearing his oath. "We aspire to a better tomorrow, a new Egypt and a second republic."
It was also a day rich in irony and symbolism. Mr Morsi swore his official oath inside the Supreme Constitutional Court, an imposing Nile-side building in Cairo that was built to resemble a Pharaonic temple. The courthouse is also next door to the large military hospital where his predecessor Hosni Mubarak is being treated.
The Heikstep military base on the outskirts of the city where the power transfer took place was once the site of an infamous chapter in the Muslim Brotherhood's decades-long struggle with Egypt's military-backed state. In the late 1990s under Mubarak, the Brotherhood was subject to routine mass-roundups and arrests. Dozens of Brotherhood members at a time were tried (and almost invariably convicted) by a series of military tribunals in the grounds of the Heikstep base.
Just before noon yesterday, Mr Morsi stood before the court and took the following oath: "I swear to God that I will faithfully preserve the republican order, that I will respect the constitution and the law, and look after the interests of the people comprehensively, and that I will preserve the independence of the nation and the safety of its land."
It was in fact the second time in two days that Mr Morsi had made that pledge. On Friday in Tahrir Square he had taken a symbolic and dramatic open-air oath of office — repeatedly stating that his only true authority and legitimacy came from Tahrir and the Egyptian street. Yesterday, however, was the day to work with and acknowledge state institutions, such as the judiciary and the military, which he will have to deal with effectively during his presidency.
The day's events brought Mr Morsi in close contact with those institutions, even though his Muslim Brotherhood remains in open conflict with them over a number of transitional issues. He swore the oath in front of the same judges who last month ruled to dissolve the Brotherhood-controlled People's Assembly. He accepted executive power from Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, just two weeks after the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) unilaterally curbed the powers of the presidency and declared the military effectively independent from presidential oversight. Both the court verdict and Scaf's decree have been called illegitimate by the Brotherhood.
After the formal swearing in, Mr Morsi travelled to the grounds of Cairo University, from which he had received his bachelors and masters degrees. He spoke before a crowded lecture hall filled with military officials, ministers and prominent opposition politicians such as Mohammed ElBaradei.
In the streets outside the campus, the divisions and tensions that Mr Morsi will inherit were on full display. As Field Marshal Tantawi's motorcade arrived, dozens of protesting university students chanted, "The people demand the execution of the field marshal!"
Inside the hall, Mr Morsi struck a conciliatory note, speaking kindly of the role played by the military over the past 16 months since Mubarak's fall.
"The military council has kept its promise that it would not be a replacement for the public will," he said. "Elected institutions will return to perform their roles and the great Egyptian army will be free to go back to its mission to protect the nation's security and border."
Looking ahead, Mr Morsi will face the immediate task of healing the country's political divisions and addressing difficult issues such as the fragile state of the post-revolutionary economy. He may also have to spend some time defusing his first-ever presidential faux pas — a seemingly improvised comment made during his Friday speech in Tahrir that has already threatened to overshadow his inauguration.
In a strange mid-speech moment, Mr Morsi spotted several people in the crowd holding signs demanding the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric serving a life sentence in the United States for plotting a 1993 bombing attack on the World Trade Center that killed six people.
"I see banners for Omar Abdel Rahman's family, and for prisoners arrested according to martial rulings and detainees from the beginning of the revolution," he said. "It is my duty to make every effort...to secure their release, among them Omar Abdel Rahman."
Those comments produced an immediate and visceral response from some corners of the US media and government. Representative Peter King, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, called Mr Morsi's statement "evidence that he is an Islamist and a radical who cannot be trusted".
"This is a disgraceful way for him to start his presidency," he added.