After taking us to the remnants of a burnt and looted police station, the police chief calmed the angry crowd. He pretended to arrest us and take us to a booking center to quell their anger, but instead he drove us back into central Cairo and dropped us off. On his first day back on the job, the same people who torched the station had been greeting him warmly, kissing his face, and welcoming him back after the unrest.
Back on the streets of the square, Tarek shook his head when I told him what had happened to me. His activist friends couldn't believe that a crowd had turned violent. There must have been plain-clothes police in the group, they decided, fomenting unrest.
"I thought you were really beaten up," Tarek said as he inspected my face. I felt a little embarrassed telling him and his friends the story. In the last two years, I had seen many like them go through far worse at the hands of the country's reviled riot police.
I had stood on the sidelines as riot police charged at demonstrators, wielding batons. I had written about their plight, but today they did me one better: The group of young men offered to make sure I was never out on Cairo's streets alone again.