MADRID — An Egyptian dissident whose online videos ignited a flurry of rare antigovernment protests last year is fighting against extradition from Spain, as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt campaigns to silence his most vocal critics abroad.
The dissident, the construction magnate Mohamed Ali, has been living in self-imposed exile in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia since 2018. Last year he posted a series of videos about corruption in Mr. el-Sisi’s circle, driven by his own complaints of being cheated, that set off a powerful wave of street protests in Cairo and several other cities.
Several thousand young protesters clashed with the police and chanted slogans in an unusual show of defiance against Mr. el-Sisi’s oppressive rule.
Now Mr. Ali faces the prospect of being sent home to face charges of tax evasion and money laundering. He appeared before a Spanish judge via videoconference for a preliminary hearing on July 9, and has been given 45 days to present a case for why he should not be sent back.
In an email, Mr. Ali, who had previously worked with Egypt’s military for 15 years, dismissed the charges as a thinly veiled effort to punish him for his activism.
The extradition request is the latest effort by Egypt to use legal tools and other means to silence Mr. el-Sisi’s most outspoken critics in countries where they are otherwise beyond the reach of his powerful security services.
Since 2013, Egyptian prosecutors have made numerous extradition requests to countries in Europe and Asia for the return of dissidents, especially leaders of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The requests have mostly failed but some dissidents have been held in prison or had their assets frozen for months in countries like Albania, Ukraine and India while they fought extradition.
The Egyptian authorities have also sought to exert pressure on expatriate critics by targeting their relatives inside Egypt.
Last month, an American citizen, Mohammed Soltan, filed a lawsuit in an American court accusing Egyptian officials of torture and other abuses during his two-year imprisonment on political charges that ended in 2015. The suit named Hazem el-Beblawi, a former prime minister of Egypt who lives in the United States and sits on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund.
Soon after the lawsuit was filed, Egyptian security officials raided the homes of Mr. Soltan’s relatives in Egypt and detained five men, who remain in custody. The authorities also interrogated Mr. Soltan’s father, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who has been in jail for years.
Egypt has used similar tactics before against dissidents in exile in countries like Turkey and Qatar, but rarely against American citizens, or in apparent response to lawsuits filed in American courts.
In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 30, a group of Egypt experts denounced the arrests as an apparent attempt to force Mr. Soltan to drop his lawsuit.
“They represent blatant interference in the U.S. justice system and an affront to his legal rights as an American citizen,” said the letter from the Working Group on Egypt, a bipartisan group that seeks to influence American policy toward Egypt.
Mr. Ali, the building contractor, worked on major development projects in Egypt for 15 years, often working closely with the military. Though Mr. Ali is a charismatic, flamboyant man who once appeared in a movie he also produced, few anticipated that the videos he posted about official corruption last September would have much impact.
But his account of corruption in the country’s ruling circles, burnished by accounts of extravagant and highhanded behavior by Mr. el-Sisi’s family, touched a nerve with young Egyptians who took to the streets on Sept. 20.
After being initially caught off-guard, the authorities clamped down hard on a second wave of protests a week later, eventually arresting over 2,300 people according to Amnesty International.
Mr. Ali initially appeared to relish his standing as a populist rebel, and fended off accusations that his activism had been quietly encouraged by Mr. el-Sisi’s political opponents. In an interview last year, he said he had no personal political ambitions but wanted to act as a uniting force for rival groups opposed to Mr. el-Sisi, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since then, Mr. Ali has largely receded into the background. His family has faced harassment by the Egyptian security forces and he has privately expressed frustration to other activists that the protest movement ultimately failed to shake Mr. el-Sisi’s power.
An Egyptian court sentenced Mr. Ali in absentia to five years imprisonment on tax evasion charges in February and ordered him to pay about $250,000 in back taxes. In its 20-page filing to Spain’s judiciary, Egypt repeated many of those accusations, saying that he had struck property deals dating to 2006, “without declaring part of his sales.”
The filing calls on Spain to send Mr. Ali back to Egypt to stand trial on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.
He denies the charges. “I left Egypt two years ago and no one stopped me. If I have done fraud, why did they let me leave the country?” he said.
Egypt and Spain do not have an extradition treaty, so the request must be decided by a judge. Egypt made a similar request after the Arab Spring in 2011, when it pursued the extradition from Spain of Hussein Salem, a close confidant of the former president, Hosni Mubarak, accusing Mr. Salem of fraud.
Spain’s constitutional court eventually turned down the request because Mr. Salem had become a Spanish citizen and had renounced his Egyptian nationality.
Mr. Salem later struck a deal with Mr. el-Sisi’s government to be allowed to return home in exchange for a payment of $600 million. In 2017, an Egyptian court dropped the final fraud charges against him.
Mr. Ali said that he hoped that Spain’s courts would also side with him against Egypt, because Spain was “a fair country that fights for human rights.”