CAIRO — Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new Islamist president, took the oath of office Saturday afternoon before the country’s top court, vowing to help build strong, independent government institutions in a country still struggling to overcome its authoritarian past.
The 60-year-old Muslim Brotherhood politician became the country’s fifth president – and its only head of state since the fall of the monarchy in 1952 who does not hail from the senior command of the armed forces.
“I will work to guarantee the independence of these powers and authorities,” a solemn Morsi told the country’s top jurists during a short ceremony inside the Supreme Constitutional Court.
The setting was the first concession Morsi has made since his election became official a week ago. The president had said he would only be sworn in before parliament, which the constitutional court dissolved earlier this month. But he backed down after delivering a rousing speech in Tahrir Square on Friday that was seen as a ceremonial oath before the people.
The swearing-in ceremony was held just a few blocks from a military hospital where ousted president Hosni Mubarak is reportedly receiving medical care.
Conspicuously absent in footage of the session broadcast by Egypt’s state television were members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which wrested power from Mubarak a year and a half ago.
Shortly after taking the oath, Morsi delivered a speech at Cairo University, during which he paid homage to the country’s security forces. In contrast to the generals’ marked absence from the oath ceremony, the head of the ruling council, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, attended the speech and clapped at times.
“The SCAF has kept its word and fulfilled its promise,” Morsi said of the council, adding that the armed forces had borne great “burdens.”
He indicated strongly, however, that he wants to see the armed forces return to their barracks as the generals relinquish authority over the executive branch.
“They will go back to their main duties of protecting our borders,” he said.
Morsi said Egypt would not seek to meddle in the affairs of other countries or attempt to export its revolution to other countries in the region. But he expressed support for Palestinian unity and for Syrians battling an autocratic government.
Essam Sabbawi, who had been elected to the recently dissolved parliament, called Morsi’s speech impressive.
“I never dreamed of a day in Egypt that an elected president would come in this way,” said Sabbawi, who belongs to the al-Wafd party. “It’s a new beginning for the people.”
Another former lawmaker, Altaf Qonsawa of the conservative Nour party, said Morsi’s address befitted a head of state.
“It was very different from the revolutionary speeches of Tahrir Square,” he said. “It was a speech fitting for the president of Egypt.”
At a military base on the outskirts of Cairo, where Morsi traveled after the speech to attend an official military ceremony, the generals offered the new president a military salute as he exited his vehicle, a powerful gesture in a country where the military for years persecuted Islamists.
Egyptians had speculated all week about the pageantry and symbolic gestures of the day, wondering in particular whether the ruling generals would salute Morsi in front of cameras. The junta stripped the presidency of its commander-in-chief powers hours after the last votes were cast, setting the stage for a protracted battle to redefine Egypt’s power structure in the months ahead.