After collecting just two points from four previous qualifiers, Egypt believed they had no chance of reaching a tournament they won three consecutive times since 2006 and sent Olympic and youth team stars to west Africa.
Libya reflected the political changes in the country by wearing a new strip before defeating Mozambique 1-0 in Cairo to replace Zambia as Group C leaders. Former champions Tunisia took a giant stride toward joining Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Botswana and co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea at the 2012 finals by forcing a 0-0 draw at closest Group K rivals Malawi.
Cameroon, another power in danger of missing the Cup of Nations, trounced Mauritius 5-0 in Group E to keep alive slim hopes of making the 16-team tournament next January.
The absence of star striker Didier Drogba, who suffered concussion playing for Chelsea last weekend, did not prevent Côte d'Ivoire raising their Group H goal haul to 17 from five games with a 5-0 Kigali drubbing of Rwanda.
Dennis Oliech struck in stoppage time to snatch a 2-1 home win for Kenya over Guinea Bissau in Group J, while Algeria came from behind under new Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic to force a 1-1 Group D draw in Tanzania.
South Africa-based midfielder Tangeni Shipahu became the unlikely toast of Burkina Faso by scoring the 83rd-minute winner that gave the home team a rare competitive victory after three consecutive pool losses.
Sheriff Suma put Sierra Leone into an early lead, Mohsen Marwan levelled on the stroke of half-time and it looked like Egypt would escape with a point until Mohamed Bangura converted an 89th-minute spot kick.