CAIRO - President-elect Mohammed Morsi roused the masses in Tahrir Square on Friday, vowing to fight on behalf of the people and defying the ruling generals by reading a symbolic oath of office a day early at the site where Egypt's revolution was born.
The country's first Islamist president also made a pledge likely to complicate relations with the U.S., vowing to seek the release of blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, jailed in the U.S. for plotting to blow up New York City landmarks and assassinate then-President Hosni Mubarak.
"We love you Morsi!" the crowd roared in response as the 60-year-old U.S.-trained engineer left the podium to get closer to the cheering crowd.
The promise to seek the release of the Egyptian-born Abdel-Rahman reflected the populist tone of Morsi's speech — his first in the square that was the epicenter of the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak. He also said he would release all detained Egyptian protesters facing military tribunals.
Pointing to protesters holding photos of prisoners, including Abdel-Rahman, the spiritual leader of men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Morsi declared: "I will make every effort, I will do it, starting tomorrow, to free them all, including Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman."
"Everybody is hearing me now. The government ... the military and the police. ... No power above this power," he told the tens of thousands of mostly Islamist supporters packing the square. "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 words were a show of defiance as he gears up for a power struggle with the country's ruling generals, who took over major presidential powers and disbanded the Islamist-controlled parliament in the days before the election results were released.
Still, the Muslim Brotherhood leader also avoided direct confrontation with the military leaders and was set to be officially sworn-in Saturday during a ceremony at the country's high court — not parliament, the traditional venue — as dictated by the generals.
At one point, Morsi opened his jacket to show the crowd he was not wearing a bulletproof vest, then declared he "fears no one but God."
The pledge to free Abdel-Rahman came in response to repeated calls by his ultraconservative supporters for the sheik to be repatriated to Egypt on humanitarian grounds. Abdel-Rahman is serving a life sentence.
While it was unclear what Morsi could do, the issue underscored that his victory could complicate relations with the U.S., although both sides have stated their desire to cooperate.
The U.S. State Department declined comment on Morsi's pledge. "There's zero chance that this happens," said an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security issues.
In his speech, Morsi repeatedly returned to his main themes — the sovereignty of the people, the importance of unity and sticking to the goals of the 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."
However, the mere fact that Morsi is to follow the generals' instructions by going ahead with the official inauguration at the high court left no doubt who holds the real power.
Two days before the June 16-17 presidential runoff, the ruling military council disbanded the country's first freely elected parliament, after a court determined the parliamentary elections were illegal. Then, as the polls were closing on June 17, it issued constitutional amendments that gave the military rulers legislative powers and control over drafting a new constitution.
Thousands of protesters, camping in Tahrir for more than two weeks to protest the military's new powers, had demanded Morsi hold his swearing-in ceremony in the square, the epicenter of mass protests that ousted his predecessor.
On Friday, Morsi read an informal oath to the delight of the crowd. "I swear in the name of great God, to sincerely preserve the republican system, to respect the constitution and law and to go after the interests of the people," he said.
Many chanted "We love you, Morsi!" and "Oh, marshal tell the truth. Morsi is your president!" — referring to the head of the ruling military panel, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
In a tribute to his 84-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders have faced arrest, imprisonment and execution, Morsi said: "We look at history, to know that great men decades ago have planted the seeds of the tree of freedom."
"Decade after decade, after long injustice and darkened night, we reached the Jan. 25 revolution," he said. "The revolution continues and is crystalized today as a clear will of the people in a president elected to lead the ship of the country ... and leading the revolution," he said.