Regular underachievers Algeria have lifted the trophy just once, on home soil in 1990, but are among a group of potential contenders in Egypt and will look to former African footballer of the year Mahrez for inspiration.
Prolific striker Baghdad Bounedjah fired Algeria ahead from the penalty spot on 34 minutes and Mahrez turned in a second before half-time in the second match of a Group C doubleheader at the 30 June Stadium. A highly-fancied Senegal beat Tanzania 2-0 in the earlier game.
It is almost a decade since Algeria last made an impact, reaching the 2010 semi-finals, and the north African conditions will suit a squad capable of going far.
“It’s never easy to win the first game of any competition. It’s always difficult for us to start the Cup of Nations,” said Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi.
“Most of the time we drew or lost so this was an important message to send to the players, that if we want to have more of a chance to get past the first round we had to win this game.”
Kenya coach Sebastien Migne said he was disappointed with his team’s slow start, a position from which they never recovered.
“We were afraid and unfortunately we did not play. I don’t mind losing but not like this. I didn’t recognise my team at the beginning,” he said. “If you’re afraid it’s not possible to exist in this kind of tournament.”
Al Sadd’s Bounedjah, who hit a staggering 39 goals in just 21 starts in Qatar this past season, smacked wide as Algeria promptly put a Kenyan team making its first tournament appearance in 15 years on the defensive.
Youcef Belaili nearly rounded Kenya goalkeeper Patrick Matasi and then shot straight at him, while skipper Mahrez failed to make better use of two dangerous free-kicks, the second skipping wide after a deflection.
A darting run from right-back Youcef Atal eventually opened the door for Algeria after half an hour, with the adventurous Nice defender chopped down in the box by Dennis Omino.
Bounedjah calmly stepped up to roll beyond Matasi and score in his sixth game running with the Desert Foxes, triggering an outpouring of joy from a sizeable and boisterous section of Algerian supporters.
Algeria quickly bagged a second when Manchester City winger Mahrez swept in a cutback from the left by Ismael Bennacer two minutes before the break.
Victor Wanyama’s Kenya succeeded in limiting the damage in an uneventful second half, in which the notable highlight was the late introduction of Andy Delort, the Montpellier forward who recently switched his allegiance from France.
Delort was a late call-up after Haris Belkebla was dropped from the squad for baring his backside online.