This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In recent weeks, Yemeni protesters calling for an immediate end to the thirty-two-year reign of US-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been met with increasing violence at the hands of state security forces. A recent pledge by Saleh to step down, one of many that haven’t met demonstrators’ demands, has yet to halt the protests or violence by the troops backing his regime. During a demonstration earlier this month in the city of Taiz, protesters marching down a central street were confronted by security forces and Saleh supporters, while government helicopters flew overhead. “The thugs and the security forces fired on us with live gunfire,” Mahmud al-Shaobi, one of the protesters told the New York Times. “Many people were shot.”
In the days since, more demonstrators have been attacked by government forces—with the death toll now estimated to exceed 130. Witnesses have also been reporting the increased use of military helicopters in the crackdown. Some of those aircraft may be recent additions to Saleh’s arsenal, provided courtesy of the Obama administration as part of an $83 million military aviation aid package.
Since the beginning of 2011, under a program run by the US Department of Defense, the United States has overseen the delivery of several new Bell UH-1Hs, or “Huey II” helicopters, current models of the iconic Huey that served as America’s primary gunship and troop transport during the Vietnam War. Although these helicopters are only the latest additions to a sizeable arsenal that the Pentagon has provided to Yemen in recent years, they call attention to how US weapons and assistance support regimes actively suppressing democratic uprisings across the Middle East.
How to Arm a Dictator
Last December, 26-year-old Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a local municipal office, touching off popular protests that continue to sweep across the Middle East and North Africa. By the end of January 2011, the country’s US-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled and demonstrations, which would eventually also topple corrupt autocrat and long-time US ally Hosni Mubarak, had broken out in Egypt. In Yemen, as is the case elsewhere in the region, anger at government corruption, rampant poverty (40 percent of all Yemenis live on less than $2 a day), high unemployment (also running at 40 percent) and decades of harsh rule by an authoritarian strongman brought tens of thousands into the streets.