As the police screams, beats and drenches demonstrators with hot water and pepper spray, only one face stays rigid with a motionless expression, a coy smile and a weird moustache –the face of Guy Fawkes. A chalk-white mask pops up in every protest against corrupt authorities around the globe.
Fawkes’ face became a popular part of demonstrations worldwide during the past two years, in WikiLeaks demonstrations, the Arab uprisings and the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the London riots and the actions of famous hacker group “the Anonymous,” the Guy Fawkes mask has shown up regularly to protest the system.
“It’s an icon that’s already there so it’s easy to copy and paste,” Mona Knio, communication arts chair, said.
Guy Fawkes was involved in the Gunpowder Plot, whose aim was to assassinate the British King, James I, and re-establish a Catholic regime in England. Authorities arrested him in Westminster Palace during the early hours of November 5, 1605. He was executed few months later.
But Fawkes’ face did not acquire popularity before the 1980s, when V for Vendetta, a comic book series, was created by Alan Moore. The series was set in a future Britain where an anonymous masked figure, “V,” plots to tear down the dictatorial government. He wore a Guy Fawkes mask to hide his mulled face and as a tribute to the legendary rebel of the 17th century.
In 2005, Warner Bros. released V for Vendetta, the film adaptation.
The most astonishing adaptation of the mask came during the mass uprisings that led to the downfall of former president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Not only did activists and demonstrators put it on during protests; it was also featured in caricatures on Facebook, Egyptian publications and on the streets. One of such illustrations featured the King Tut legendary golden mask with Guy Fawkes features.
Knio finds that “the Egyptians might relate to Guy Fawkes’ mask because they suffered from British occupation once and they had to work in the darkness to free their country.”
Closely related to this is the video, “Khaled for Vendetta,” uploaded on YouTube by Mohamad Alm Elhoda on June 2010. To date, the video has only 20,000 views despite its importance. It tells the story of Khaled Said, the Egyptian young man who was arrested and tortured till death during interrogations. Like the Guy Fawkes story, the killing of Said set a chain of unstoppable events on a national scale.
Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, wore a Fawkes mask when he arrived at the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest to deliver a speech, but the police insisted he takes it off.
V quotes like “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof” became popular sentences on banners during demonstrations.
Back in the Middle East and more specifically in Lebanon. The mask has rarely been used in demonstrations here but is becoming a stigma online. Many activists today use photos of the mask as their profile pictures. Imad Bazzi, one of Lebanon’s chief bloggers and political activists, succeeded in acquiring the mask from abroad.
On his Facebook page, you will see the image of a huge man wearing the mask. “I’m the one with the V mask giving the Lebanese government the middle finger in the profile picture,” Bazzi told me.
This parade of Guy Fawkes masks recall resembles to a certain extent the famous image of Ernesto Guevara, commonly known as Che Guevara, which was exploited as a symbol for revolution even 40 years after his death.
From the 1960s and until today, Che’s image was printed on shirts, bags, shoes, necklaces and more. Most people who wore it did not even know who the Cuban revolutionary was or what kind of political views he advocated.
The same thing is happening again. The Guy Fawkes mask is being worn by protesters just as a sign of rebellion, without knowledge of the man’s story.
But according to Knio, the mask can be a two-edged sword since it’s possible for spies to wear it during demonstrations to hurt people. “How can I know who’s the person next to me if they are wearing a mask?” she wondered.
By Farah Al Saati
LAU Tribune staff