The inside story on the court of Hosni Mubarak
Ahmed Mourad was the Egyptian dictator's trusted personal photographer. So why did he risk writing a novel exposing the worst excesses of the regime?
Back in the winter of 2007, when the regime of Hosni Mubarak appeared unshakeably secure, an aspiring writer was sitting in the lounge of one of Cairo's plushest hotels when he had a brainwave that would change his life. How could he write a novel, he asked himself, which would expose the nefarious underbelly of Egyptian political life in all its seedy detail?
A few months later the first editions of Vertigo were being printed and bound, and not long after it was topping the best-seller lists and being hailed as Egypt's first modern thriller. There was just one potential pitfall – the author was the personal photographer of Hosni Mubarak: a trusted aide who travelled across the globe taking snapshots of the ageing dictator.
But, according to Ahmed Mourad, the man who risked his livelihood by tapping into the quagmire of political corruption which his boss had allowed to develop, he had no choice.
"If I was worried, I would not have published the book," he said in an interview with The Independent, sitting in the same rooftop lounge of the Grand Nile Towers Hotel where he had his eureka moment. "There is a point when you can never go back," he said, explaining that he felt moved to write his book – which last month was screened as a 30-part Ramadan series on Egyptian TV – because of the mounting hardships being faced by ordinary people labouring under the Mubarak dictatorship. "I would never have forgiven myself."
Incredibly, Mr Mourad has now returned to work – for the new president Mohamed Morsi. Officials in the presidential palace never questioned him about the book, he said, and he simply picked up where he left off following last year's uprising.
After Vertigo he had a second novel published, while a third is due for release later this autumn. But it was the debut, a gut-drenched thriller still topping the best-seller lists in Egypt, which made his name. The story centres on a photographer who witnesses an assassination and then uses his pictures to bribe a series of corrupt villains.
And if the book was partly autobiographical – its bespectacled, grit-toothed hero bears a striking resemblance to the author himself – there was nothing fictional about the extraordinary life which Mr Mourad's clearance gave him access to.
When the President was not relaxing in his Sharm el-Sheikh villa during the winter months, Mr Mourad would be summoned to Heliopolis Palace, the sprawling neo-Moorish presidential residence in north-east Cairo, to take pictures of Mubarak's meetings with officials. His also criss-crossed the globe meeting some of the world's most high-profile – not to mention repugnant – leaders. "I shook hands with Gaddafi twice in his Libyan tent," Mr Mourad revealed with a smile.
Then there were his meetings with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. "We met two times in 2003 in his palace in Damascus," he said. "He didn't seem like a leader to me, but I could tell he was tough."
Mr Mourad was reluctant to divulge too much information about his former employer. But he revealed something of the hidden face of Mubarak. "He's a good man. He is very kind. This is just a personal view."
The former President was given a life sentence in June for his role in killing hundreds of protesters during the Egyptian uprising. His two sons – one of whom, Gamal, was believed by many to be on the verge of taking over from his father – were acquitted on charges of corruption.
For millions of Egyptians, Mubarak was an untouchable tyrant who oversaw years of economic mismanagement and who allowed a culture of state brutality to flourish.
Yet Mr Mourad, who worked as Mubarak's photographer for a decade – up until the day he was toppled on February 11 last year – claims he saw another side of Egypt's leader. "I can separate political issues and personal. He wasn't Adolf Hitler or a bloody dictator like people think. He was a normal man, an old man. When I saw him play with his grandsons he was very normal, just joking around. During those 10 years he didn't mistreat me or insult me."
Viewing Mubarak at close quarters, Mr Mourad said he saw changes in the ageing autocrat during his later years. As pro-democracy movements began to demand reform from 2007 onwards, and the pressures of high office increased, Mubarak became detached.
When his eldest grandson, 12-year-old Muhammad, died in 2009, Mubarak became even more remote, said Mr Mourad. "After that he became quiet. He was an army man, so I think he always felt that he shouldn't talk to anyone about these things."
Amazingly, despite writing his first book while still doing his daily trips to the presidential palace, Mr Mourad said that nobody from Mubarak's inner circle ever mentioned the novel to him.
On February 11, 2011, the day when Mubarak was finally forced to stand down, Mr Mourad was not working, but he said it was a pivotal moment in his life.
"I felt empty. Everything stopped, like when you are hearing a very loud noise and then it is gone. I had to take it easy for one week to understand what I would do next," he said.
The decision to publish was itself a radical step, given that the thriller genre was largely unknown in the world of Arabic novelists.
It was a cultural dearth which Mr Mourad said can be explained by the circumstances of the Mubarak tyranny: Egyptians, with their bustling streets and tussles with police brutality, were living in a thriller every day – why would they want to experience more of it in their spare time?
"The most beautiful thing to write about is something which is not present in society," he explained.
"The fact is, the thriller was already part of life."
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