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?

Cairo

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."

Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Sport
Jose Mourinho restrains his assistant manager Rui Faria, Fabio Borini celebrates his winning penalty and Connor Wickham equalises for Sunderland
sportChelsea 1 Sunderland 2: Deafeat is extra bitter as former Chelsea player Fabio Borini scores late penalty to seal victory
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit