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Mubarak's ex-photographer exposes Egypt's secrets.

Summary: A man who served as personal photographer to toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, and then wrote a bestselling novel exposing the failings of his aging employer's government, has just started his new job -- working for new President Mohammad Mursi.

CAIRO: A man who served as personal photographer to toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, and then wrote a bestselling novel exposing the failings of his aging employer's government, has just started his new job -- working for new President Mohammad Mursi.

For 10 years Ahmad Mourad was a trusted aide of ex-leader Mubarak, traveling across the globe taking snapshots of the dictator.

Yet at the same time he risked his livelihood by writing a breakthrough book which tapped into the fetid sump of political corruption that his own boss had allowed to develop.

Titled "Vertigo," the novel detailed the nefarious underworld of Cairo's political life in gory detail. Flitting between the corridors of Egypt's feared State Security and the dodgy business dealings of a rich array of kleptocrats, the work touched upon many of the issues that eventually triggered the 2011 uprising which overthrew Mubarak.

Despite being a work of fiction, Mourad risked everything by depicting the rotten core of Egyptian society, written under the very noses of those who were responsible for it.

Amazingly, he was allowed back into the presidential palace to work for Mursi. Mourad told The Daily Star that the new leader's officials never questioned him about the book, and that he simply picked up where he left off following last year's uprising.

His main concern was that the novel -- which became a runaway bestseller and last month was adapted into a 30-part Ramadan TV series -- would land him in hot water after it hit the bookshelves in 2007.

But after hesitating over whether he should find himself a publisher, Mourad eventually decided to go with his gut instinct.

"There is a point when you can never go back," the 34-year-old said in an interview with The Daily Star, in the 40th-floor lounge of the plush Grand Nile Towers Hotel in downtown Cairo.

Mourad said he felt moved to put pen to paper because of the mounting hardships being faced by ordinary people laboring under the Mubarak dictatorship. "I would never have forgiven myself."

Mourad has since had a second novel published, while a third is due for release later this autumn. But it is Vertigo, a gut-wrenched thriller, that is still topping the bestseller lists in Egypt.

The story centers around a photographer who witnesses an assassination and then uses his pictures to bribe a series of corrupt villains.

But if the book was partly autobiographical -- its bespectacled hero bears a striking resemblance to the author himself -- there was nothing fictional about the extraordinary life which Mourad's high-level clearance gave him access to.

When Mubarak was not relaxing in his Sharm el-Sheikh villa during the winter months, Mourad would be summoned to Heliopolis Palace, the sprawling neo-Moorish presidential residence in northeast Cairo, to take pictures of Mubarak's meetings with officials.

His also crisscrossed the globe to meet some of the world's most high-profile, and despised, dictators. "I shook hands with [Moammar] Gadhafi twice in his Libyan tent," Mourad revealed with a smile.

He also met Syrian President Bashar 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."

Back in Cairo, Mourad was summoned to the presidential palace as businessmen and ministers arrived to pay fealty to the aging Mubarak. Taking in the "atmosphere" during these occasions, he would then return home to his bedroom, switch on his laptop and feed it into his novel.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Mourad was reluctant to divulge too much information about his former employer. But he revealed something of the hidden face of Mubarak which belies his image in the popular imagination.

"He's a good man actually. He is very kind, both him and his sons. This is just a personal view," he said.

Yet he also found it necessary to keep his distance -- playing the role of unquestioning employee, while refusing to get drawn into the corrupt world of his political paymasters.

"If the people I was photographing didn't put a barrier up, then I put one up," he said. "They liked me, but they didn't want me to be too close."

Mubarak was given a life sentence in June for his role in killing hundreds of protesters during the Egyptian revolution. His two sons -- one of whom, Gamal, was 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 allowed a culture of unfettered state brutality to flourish unchecked.

Yet Mourad, who worked as Mubarak's photographer right up until the day he was toppled on Feb. 11 last year -- claims he saw another side of Egypt's leader.

"I can separate between 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, Mourad said he saw changes in the autocrat during his later years. As pro-democracy movements began to demand political reform from 2007 onward, and the pressures of high office increased, Mubarak became detached.

When his eldest grandson, 12-year-old Mohammad, died in 2009, Mubarak became even more remote, said 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."

Incredibly, despite writing his first book while still doing his daily trips to the presidential palace, Mourad said that nobody from Mubarak's inner circle ever brought the novel up with him.

On Feb. 11, 2011, the day when Mubarak was finally forced to stand down, 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."

Copyright 2012, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Sep 7, 2012
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