The second of three rounds is due to begin at 8am (0600 GMT) on Sunday in nine governorates, including the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold where confessional violence broke out last month.

While the ruling National Democratic Party's dominance was not in doubt after securing 112 out of 164 seats up for grabs in the first phase, the officially banned brotherhood won a surprise 34 constituencies, twice its tally in 2000.

The first phase, centered on Cairo, ended on Wednesday, amid accusations of widespread irregularities from monitoring organisations and opposition parties.

It also signalled the demise of the secular opposition, with presidential runner-up and Ghad party leader Ayman Nur crashing to defeat in his own stronghold and an alliance of other parties failing to make any impact.

Islamist movement

The second phase will see close to 1800 candidates battle it out over 144 seats.

Muslim Brotherhood has drawn
support with 'Islam is the solution'

Any runoffs will take place on 26 November before the final phase starts on 1 December.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1929, already commands unprecedented political clout after the first phase results.

Observers credited that to an aggressive welfare-oriented campaign under the slogan "Islam is the solution".
 
Similarly strong showings in the next two phases would give the Islamist movement close to 100 seats in parliament.

Regime unaccepting

Legal parties need 5% of parliament - or 25 seats - to field a candidate in presidential elections.

Ayman Nour was defeated in his
own stronghold  

But independents require the approval of at least 65 members, according to a recent constitutional amendment which the Muslim Brotherhood says was designed to prevent it from running.

Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, believs that the government "will never accept a massive parliamentary representation for the Brothers".

Christian Copts

In a show of force, the brotherhood staged a demonstration of about 20,000 veiled women who demonstrated in the streets of Alexandria on Friday night.

However, the Islamist movement announced that it had withdrawn its candidate running in the Muharram Baik constituency against a Christian Copt from the NDP.

The Alexandria neighbourhood saw violent clashes a month ago after the CD release of a Christian play deemed offensive to Islam, as deep resentment among the country's Christian community resurfaced.

The Muslim Brotherhood said it had withdrawn its candidate in a bid to defuse any possible tension on election day.

Four of its activists were arrested over the weekend as they distributed leaflets.