President-elect Mohammed Morsi addressed hundreds of thousands of people Friday in Tahrir Square in a dramatic appearance that symbolized the change his election represents in Egypt and highlighted the confrontation everyone is expecting with the military in the coming months.
Morsi also made clear that his policies are likely to clash with U.S. interests as he promised to seek the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, who’s serving a life sentence in an American prison for involvement in terrorist plots in the United States that were uncovered during the investigation of the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center.
"I see the family of Dr. Omar Abdel-Rahman and banners about the civilians jailed by military verdicts and those detained since the beginning of the revolution," he said, referring to the uprising that led to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation of the presidency last year. "It’s my duty to expend all possible effort and I will, until all of them, including Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, are released."
People in Cairo said they thought Morsi’s appearance in Tahrir was the first time in Egypt’s history that the top leader had spoken from a stage erected in a public square.
Republican and Presidential guards, who during the Mubarak regime often helped oppress Muslim Brotherhood members like Morsi, secured the perimeter of the stage, which Egypt’s Communications Ministry had erected in the square after Morsi announced that he’d address demonstrators.
“I came to you because I believe you are the source of authority and legitimacy that no other legitimacy will rise above. No authority is above yours, and whoever is sheltered by anyone other than you will lose,” Morsi said.
Then, in a moment of high drama, the 60-year-old president-elect stepped outside the circle of guards, opened his jacket and announced that he wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest.
“I am protected by God and by you,” he said.
Morsi’s appearance came a day before he’s to be sworn in formally before the Supreme Constitutional Court, but already he seemed to set the stage for a struggle over his authority with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the country’s ruling military committee, which earlier this month amended the interim constitution to limit the president’s powers.
“I am the decision maker, through your will and by your selection, and there is no way that the authority of the people and their representatives can be extorted,” Morsi said. “I will not give up any of the president’s privileges. I don’t have the right to give up any privileges.”
The crowd roared its approval.
“Everyone, hear me now, the people, the army, the police and the Cabinet,” he proclaimed. “No authority is above the people’s authority. You are the owners of authority. You are the owners of the will. You are the source of this authority.”
Then he repeated the oath of office he’ll officially take Saturday: “I swear by God that I will sincerely protect the republican system and that I respect the constitution and the rule of law. I will look after the interests of the people and protect the independence of the nation and the safety of its territory.”
Earlier in the day, Morsi joined prayers at Cairo’s al Azhar mosque, where he heard Sheikh Mohammed el Qusi, Egypt’s minister of religious endowments, preach about the historical tolerance between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout Islamic history.
In an admonition that seemed aimed at Morsi, who sat in the front row, el Qusi called for equal treatment for all Egyptians, regardless of their religious beliefs. “No to discrimination between individuals, groups or communities. The leader should be everyone’s leader,” he said.
The newly elected president was caught on camera weeping when the cleric spoke of Napoleon Bonaparte’s cavalry raiding the mosque during the French occupation of Egypt.
For most Egyptians, it was the first time they’d ever seen a president standing in public. The appearance came as a surprise in a country of 90 million people who were ruled for three decades by Mubarak, who was sitting next to President Anwar Sadat when members of his own military assassinated him in a shower of bullets.
“I have always seen them on TV. This is the first time I’ve seen a president face to face,” said Mohamed Sayyed, a 46 year-old salesman. “It was impossible for Mubarak to ever show up in public: He knew how much people hated him.”