updated 7/15/2005 6:36:05 PM ET 2005-07-15T22:36:05

The biochemist detained in Cairo in connection with the London bombings is an intelligent, quiet young man who advanced to one of Egypt’s most prestigious research centers and whose lower middle-class family spent heavily for him to study abroad, neighbors say.

Magdy Mahmoud Mustafa el-Nashar, 33, had been teaching chemistry at Leeds University in northern England, and returned to Egypt a week before the deadly July 7 bombings in the British capital.

He was arrested four or five days ago in Cairo after British officials supplied his name to Egyptian authorities over the weekend, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was revealing information not announced by the Interior Ministry. However el-Nashar’s brother said el-Nashar was arrested on Thursday, after he’d gone to pray at a local mosque and did not return.

British authorities said they found signs in el-Nashar’s Leeds home that quantities of a compound called TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, had been converted into a powerful explosive, The Times newspaper reported.

Leaning on Cairo
A security official said Britain was pressuring Egypt to hand el-Nashar over. If Egypt hands him over, it may also seek the return from Britain of militant suspects Egypt has been seeking, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information was not authorized for official release.

A spokeswoman for Britain’s Foreign Office said it had no comment on whether Britain was seeking extradition. However, earlier Friday, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said he wanted el-Nashar returned to Britain, which does not have an extradition treaty with Egypt.

In questioning by Egyptian officials, he denied any role in the attacks and said he was planning to return to Leeds after a vacation in Egypt, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. He was still being held, the ministry said, without saying whether he would be handed over to Britain or offering further details about his arrest.

British authorities said they found signs in el-Nashar’s Leeds home that quantities of a compound called TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, had been converted into a powerful explosive, The Times newspaper reported.

Poor, but intelligent and ambitious
El-Nashar grew up in crowded, impoverished Ezbet Fahmy, an illegally built neighborhood of ramshackle buildings and small alleyways on the edge of one of Cairo’s most posh suburbs, Maadi, in the southern part of the capital.

His father, a retired employee from a construction company, owned a welding shop next to their apartment. Several years ago, his family moved to a somewhat better neighborhood.

“They were very isolated from people. He (el-Nashar) was rarely seen talking to people,” Rifai Sayed Taha, whose brother is married to el-Nashar’s sister, told The Associated Press outside the former family home.

A neighbor who lived near the el-Nashar family in Ezbat Fahmy for 30 years described Magdy el-Nashar as “very religious.”

“He was an achiever and very kind,” said the woman, who refused to give her name, fearing troubles with security forces. “They spent a lot on him and his studies.”

El-Nashar studied chemistry at Cairo University and for his doctorate studies was accepted by the National Research Center, one of Egypt’s most prestigious institutions. In late 1999, the center sponsored him for a winter semester at North Carolina State University, and then for the teaching and research position at Leeds, where he moved in late 2000.

Leeds University said he earned a doctorate on May 6.

Research unrelated to explosives
His research at Leeds focused on biocatalysis and enzyme immobilization, according to a biography of him at the university’s Web site.

That kind of research “wouldn’t have anything directly to do with explosives” or with biological weapons, said Constance Ann Schall, an associate professor at the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

Based on the description on the Web site, Schall said it appeared el-Nashar was working on using enzymes — biological molecules usually taken from plants — as catalysts to speed up chemical reactions, a common field of research.

Such enzyme catalysts have important commercial uses in making pharmaceuticals, laundry detergents and some food products, especially high-fructose corn syrup, Schall said.

Friends: No ideological issues
Hani el-Nazer, the director of the National Research Center in Cairo, said el-Nashar came home on vacation two weeks ago — about a week before the London blasts. He spent his first days at the center, presenting a copy of the doctorate thesis that he completed at Leeds.

He then told his friends he was going on vacation, el-Nazer said.

El-Nazer said he was surprised by the reports el-Nashar was being sought in the London attacks.

“I think it is difficult to believe such things,” he said.

El-Nazer had not met el-Nashar personally, since he became the center’s chief more than a year after el-Nashar left the country.

“When I asked his colleagues, they didn’t mention anything bad thing about him, saying only that he was clever and calm. His colleagues said he had no behavior of violence or no ideological issues,” el-Nazer said.

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