David D. Kirkpatrick
Cairo. President-elect Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood pre-empted the military’s choreographed swearing-in ceremony by taking an oath of office a day early on Friday, in a televised speech to tens of thousands of supporters in Tahrir Square.
But a promise Morsi made as part of his speech may provoke the US: to seek the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian-born militant Islamist convicted after the 1993 World Trade Center attack of plotting to bomb several New York City landmarks.
Morsi’s brief reference to Abdel Rahman came in an almost offhand aside in the context of a vow to free Egyptian civilians imprisoned here after military trials under the rule of the generals. “I see signs for Omar Abdel Rahman and detainees’ pictures,” he said. “It is my duty and I will make all efforts to have them free, including Omar Abdel Rahman.”
A Brotherhood spokesman said later that Morsi intended to ask federal officials in the US to have Abdel Rahman extradited to Egypt on humanitarian grounds. He was not seeking to have Abdel Rahman’s convictions overturned or describing him as a political prisoner.
An Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, shrugged it all off as empty talk, saying, “There is zero chance this happens.”
Egyptians were far more concerned about the spectacle of the speech in Tahrir Square — the proving ground of the country’s revolution — as the latest power play in the standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling generals.
“I come to you as the source of legitimacy,” Morsi declared, pointedly pledging his allegiance to the public and eschewing the institutions of the government of his ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. “Everyone hears me, all the people and the Cabinet and government, army, police. There is no authority over this authority. You have the power!”
His soaring talk of popular sovereignty, however, appeared to be an attempt to cover up for an early concession to the generals, who still cling to power.
On the eve of Morsi’s election, the generals dissolved Parliament, seized its powers and issued a new interim charter depriving the office of Egypt’s president of much of its authority. They also stipulated that the president should swear the oath in front of the Mubarak-appointed judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
That same court had issued a hurried decision authorizing the generals to dissolve Parliament, and the generals’ new interim constitution assigned the court a role overseeing the drafting of a new, permanent charter. Swearing-in before the court was seen a tacit recognition of its authority and that of the generals.
The Brotherhood and Morsi immediately demanded that the swearing-in take place before a reinstalled Parliament, as did thousands of their supporters who occupied Tahrir Square for more than a week demanding the return of Parliament and the withdrawal of the interim charter.
But on Friday it became clear that Morsi had agreed to take his formal oath in front of the court Saturday morning and that his Tahrir Square speech was in part an effort to distract from that agreement.
An engineering professor with only a short history in electoral politics, Morsi has never been known as an orator. Even on Friday he read from a prepared speech held chest-high, often balancing it awkwardly in the same hand as his microphone.
Still, Morsi’s speech was unexpectedly rousing. The staging might have helped. Reflecting his status as president-elect, an advance team arrived early to build a platform much grander than the usual Tahrir Square pedestals. It was then decorated with banners denouncing the military’s power grab. “No to dissolving Parliament!” the banners read.
His new retinue of presidential guards accompanied Morsi, who at the start of the speech, pushed aside two heavily armed soldiers in bulletproof vests so he could stand face to face with the crowd.
“I am here today with you, with the Egyptian people,” he said. He later pulled open his sport coat, saying: “I have nothing to protect me from any bullets. I fear God almighty and then I work for you.” The moment was in vivid contrast to Mubarak’s heavily guarded public speeches.
Few Egyptians appeared to notice Morsi’s comments about Abdel Rahman, and it was not clear whether they might play into suspicions among some in Washington of his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, an 84-year-old Islamist group with a long history of opposition to the policies of the US and Israel.
In an interview with Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, Morsi once said he harbored suspicions that still unknown hidden hands might have played a role in the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter, then you are insulting us,” Morsi said, according to an article Hamid wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. Although it is all but impossible to find an Egyptian who supports terrorist attacks like those on Sept. 11 or the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center garage, many are highly skeptical of official US accounts about who was responsible. Morsi’s pledge to seek Abdel Rahman’s extradition may play well with Egyptians who perceived Mubarak as a lackey to Washington.
Abdel Rahman is serving a life sentence at the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina. He was convicted of conspiring to conduct a war of urban terrorism against the US through acts that included the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, though he was not accused of helping to carry out that attack. He was also convicted of plotting to kill Mubarak during a planned visit by the Egyptian leader to New York in 1993 that never materialized.
After Morsi’s speech, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York said, “The conviction of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman was a measure of justice against a man who tried to kill so many, and New Yorkers would oppose any effort to undermine him serving his life sentence.”
New York Times