By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press
CAIRO -- Islamist Mohammed Morsi promised a "new Egypt" as he took the oath of office Saturday to become the country's first freely elected president, succeeding Hosni Mubarak who was ousted 16 months ago.
At his inauguration before the Supreme Constitutional Court, Morsi also became the Arab world's first freely elected Islamist president and Egypt's fifth head of state since the overthrow of the monarchy some 60 years ago.
He took the oath before the court's 18 black-robed judges in its Nile-side seat built to resemble an ancient Egyptian temple.
"We aspire to a better tomorrow, a new Egypt and a second republic," Morsi said during a solemn ceremony shown live on state television.
"Today, the Egyptian people laid the foundation of a new life - absolute freedom, a genuine democracy and stability," said Morsi, a 60-year-old U.S.-trained engineer from the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group that has spent most of the 84 years since its inception as an outlawed organization harshly targeted by successive governments.
Hundreds of soldiers and policemen guarded the building as Morsi arrived shortly after 11 a.m. local time (9 a.m. GMT) in a small motorcade. Only several hundred supporters gathered outside the court to cheer the new president and, in a departure from the presidential pomp of the Mubarak years, traffic was only briefly halted to allow his motorcade through on the usually busy road linking the city center with its southern suburbs.
Morsi's inauguration signals a personal triumph. He was not the Brotherhood's first choice as president, and was thrown into the presidential race when the group's original candidate, chief strategist and financier Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified over a Mubarak-era criminal conviction.
Derided as the Brotherhood's uncharismatic "spare tire," his personal prestige has surged since his victory and his delivery of a Friday speech that tried to present him as a candidate not just of Islamists but of all those who want to complete the work of the 2011 uprising against the authoritarian Mubarak.
"Egypt today is a civil, national, constitutional and modern state," Morsi, wearing a blue business suit and a red tie, told the judges in the wood-paneled chamber where he took the oath of office. "It is a strong nation because of its people and the beliefs of its sons and its institutions."
Morsi later traveled to Cairo University where he was to make his inauguration address. He was given an official welcome by an army band that played the national anthem as he stood to attention. Military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi was in attendance. His arrival was greeted with chants of, "The army and the people are one hand," from the hundreds gathered in the university's main lecture room.
Established in 1908 as a bastion of secular education, Cairo University later became a stronghold of Islamist student groups in the 1970s. Many of those student leaders have gone on to become senior members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, the nation's oldest and most powerful Islamist movement.
A handover ceremony hosted by the military generals who ruled Egypt since Mubarak's ouster follows.
Morsi took a symbolic oath on Friday in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising that ended Mubarak's authoritarian rule last year, and vowed to reclaim presidential powers stripped from his office by the military council that took over from the ousted leader.
But by agreeing to take the official oath before the court, rather than before parliament as is customary, he is bowing to the military's will in an indication that the contest for power will continue.
Morsi's Friday speech in Tahrir Square was filled with dramatic populist gestures. The 60-year-old president-elect staked a claim to the legacy of the uprising and voiced his determination to win back the powers stripped from his office by the generals.
Addressing a crowd that repeatedly shouted, "We love you Morsi!" he began his speech by joining them in chanting, "Revolutionaries and free, we will continue the journey." Later he opened his jacket wide to show that he was not wearing a bullet-proof vest. "I fear no one but God and I work for you," he told the cheering supporters. As he was leaving the podium, he pushed aside two army soldiers from his security detail to wave goodbye to the crowd.
"Everybody is hearing me now. The government ... the military and the police. ... No power above this power," he told the crowd. "I reaffirm to you I will not give up any of the president's authorities. I can't afford to do this. I don't have that right."
Morsi's defiant tone, however, could not conceal that by agreeing to take the oath before the court, rather than before parliament as is customary, he was bowing to the military's will.
The generals dissolved the Islamist-packed legislature after the same court that will swear him in Saturday ruled that a third of its members were elected illegally.
The military has also declared itself the legislative power. It gave itself control over the drafting of a new constitution and sidelined Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which had sought to influence the process by packing the drafting panel with Islamists.
The generals also created a National Security Council to formulate key domestic and foreign policies. Military officers outnumber civilians sitting on the council by about two-to-one, and decisions are made by a simple majority.
In his Friday speech, Morsi repeatedly returned to his main themes - the will of the people, the importance of unity and sticking to the goals of last year's revolution.
He promised to reject any efforts to take away the "power of the people," telling his supporters: "You are the source of legitimacy and whoever is protected by anyone else will lose."