CAIRO – Islamist Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s first freely elected president on Saturday, launching his four-year term with a potentially dangerous quest to wrest back from the military the full authority of his office.
The outcome of the impending battle between Egypt’s first civilian president and its powerful generals will redraw the country’s political landscape after 60 years of de facto military rule.
If Morsi succeeds, the Muslim Brotherhood will likely be emboldened to press ahead with realizing the longtime goal of making Egypt an Islamic state. Otherwise the military – which has been reluctant to give up the power it assumed after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster – will continue its stranglehold on the country for years, maybe decades, to come.
For Egypt’s estimated 82 million people, the prospect of a continuing battle between the military and the Brotherhood, the country’s largest political group, will only prolong the political instability that has rocked their nation since Mubarak’s ouster last year. Egyptians have seen the initial euphoria following the revolution turn into a wave of pessimism amid a declining economy, rising crime and a seemingly endless wave of protests, strikes and sit-ins.
The yearning for stability was expressed by two prominent figures.
Nobel Peace Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, also Egypt’s top pro-democracy advocate, tweeted that it was time to resolve the thorny issues of the new constitution, the president’s powers and legislation. “Now, the time for building has come, to achieve the revolution’s goals,” he said.
Gamal Eid, a well-known rights lawyer and activist, saw in Morsi’s inauguration the chance for someone in power to be held accountable. “Now the ball is in the president’s court after he became the first elected president of Egypt. Now we can hold him accountable either with or without authorities.”
Both sides – Morsi and the military – made a show of unity during the inauguration ceremonies that began with the 60-year-old U.S.-trained engineer being sworn in at the Supreme Constitutional Court, then making an address a few hours later at Cairo University as the ruling generals applauded politely.
Morsi repeated his oath of office in the university’s gigantic lecture hall and lavishly praised the military council, which had promised to hand over power to a civilian government by July 1 but pushed through a series of decrees this month that stripped the president of significant powers before doing so.
The decrees gave the military legislative authority after the parliament was dissolved by court order as well as control over the process of drafting a permanent constitution. It also retained its influence on key domestic and foreign policy issues.
“The armed forces are the shield and sword of the nation,” Morsi told an audience of several thousand people.
“I pledge before God that I will safeguard that institution, soldiers and commanders, raise its prestige and support it with all the powers available to me so it can be stronger,” he added.
But Morsi later appeared to urge the military to hand over all powers to his elected administration.
“The (ruling) Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has honored its promise not to be a substitute for the popular will and the elected institutions will now return to carry out their duties as the glorious Egyptian army returns to being devoted to its mission of defending the nation’s borders and security,” he said.
The military already has won the first round, forcing Morsi to take his official oath of office before the court because there is no parliament, the traditional venue for inaugurations.
The Supreme Constitutional Court is packed with judges appointed by Mubarak before his ouster and it is the same tribunal that ruled two weeks ago that a third of parliament’s members were elected illegally. Armed with that verdict, the military disbanded the chamber.